The value of music to Welsh learners

meinir01As those of you who follow me on Facebook already know, we had the lovely experience of bumping into the always interesting Meinir Gwilym (that link is to her brand-new website, which I think she’s mostly put together herself, chwarae teg!) and Bryn Gwynfryn in Pwllheli on Saturday.  [I’m determined to twist Bryn’s arm into a cup of tea and chat in the near future, even if it means wandering around Trefor shouting that I’ve got a thermos ready].  Anyway, when I carry Angharad Lliar upstairs to bed after her mandatory two or three stories every night, I tell her to ‘hold tight’ around my neck (because it’s a slight help for my back!).  In Welsh, that’s ‘Gafael yn dynn’, which also happens to be one of Meinir’s songs (which you can buy for $1 on iTunes or, even better, get the whole superb album directly from Meinir herself) – and pretty much every time I say that to Angharad Lliar, however sleepy she is, she starts singing that song.

Imagine my delight, then, when instead of calling the police and asking them to arrest me as a potentially dangerous stalker, Meinir responded to my shameless request for her to sing a bit of that song to Angharad Lliar by doing exactly that – while Angharad Lliar gripped me firmly around the neck and stuck her hand over my mouth to make sure that I didn’t embarrass her (or myself!) by joining in.  Meinir’s one of the most successful Welsh singers we’ve ever had – somehow I can’t imagine Bob Dylan or Madonna supporting a low key local event in the same way, or giving one-by-one personal mini-performances in such a humble and friendly way.

But don’t worry – this isn’t just a piece of hagiography!

dewipwsI’ve been thinking for a long time, on and off, about how we can use Welsh artists to help learners, and how Welsh learners could be a massively valuable support for Welsh artists.  I don’t think I’ve got a good, clear solution in mind yet, but I do think that 2014 is the year where I need to try to start throwing some things together and seeing what works.

I know already that many of you have found listening to bands you like a great way to drum certain words and phrases into your subconscious – and most Welsh bands have such low sales figures that every extra bit of marketing is a genuine help.

I wonder if doing an SSi-style lesson for an individual song would make our learners more likely to want to buy that album?  Particularly if we struck a deal that meant you could get the album for a little less than it would be in the shops?  Might that even be interesting enough for you to be willing to look at signing up to a monthly deal, maybe?

If we had a few hundred learners on a monthly deal, we could go to and fro between giving you access to the biggest names in Welsh music, and giving the occasional huge boost to really promising young bands – and if we could get more than a few hundred involved, it could even become something that would be a genuinely valuable shot in the arm for the SRG (Sîn Roc Gymraeg!).

lleuwenMaybe we could be thinking more carefully about linking certain phrases in the new course back to particular songs – and we’ve also replaced the very tired, cheesy intro music for the original course with a little clip of a fantastic song by the remarkably talented Lleuwen on the new version, which will be backed up with links to where you can get the album online.  There might be more we can do with that.

[Disclaimer: Lleuwen was responsible for one of our favourite SSiW moments to date, when she sent us a signed copy of her latest album ‘Tân’ (which is gorgeous, and which you should rush and get right now) as a thank-you for SSiW, which it turned out her Breton husband was using!  So we are openly and extremely biased in her favour…:-)]

I’m also thinking that once Ifan has survived the first few mountains of work we’ve built for him, maybe we can build something to help introduce learners to Welsh bands, and make it easier to buy online – at the moment. Sadwrn.com and Cerdd Ystwyth and Sain Records all have online selling capabilities, but I don’t think any of them has really cracked it in terms of ease of use and navigation, and certainly not in terms of social ratings and feedback and interaction.

Labourers in their singlets posing wi...

Welsh musicians in their ordinary day jobs (Disclaimer: this sub-title may not be factually true). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think getting some tentative first steps to work here might be particularly important for two other reasons – the 30% or so of our learners in England, and the 30% or so of our learners in the United States.  As ‘World Music’ has grown in popularity, it’s become less and less comprehensible to me that our best artists, who are absolutely genuinely fantastic, world-class performers (as you’d expect from a culture which has always valued music so highly) don’t sell in the kind of numbers outside Wales that makes it possible for them to perform and record full-time.

Very few (if any?) Welsh language artists create on a full-time basis – they almost all need some kind of day job to keep body and soul together, despite the fact that their music is brilliant.

I’d be very, very interested in your thoughts on this.

It’s one of the ways in which I believe SaySomethinginWelsh could make a genuine and lasting contribution of real value to Welsh language culture – so let’s start thinking about it more, and testing as much stuff as possible over the course of the next year or so…:-)

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56 responses to “The value of music to Welsh learners

  1. Yes, yes, yes!

    Meaningful content via song for a lesson is a fantastic idea. And a growing Welsh community abroad would love to help support artists – we just need those connections to be made.

  2. Brilliant post Aran. I would love lessons built around music. Discounts would be cool too. Gwyneth Glyn is amazing! Love your ambition.

    • Fantastic to hear that, Stephen, diolch o galon. And now you’ve got me wondering – I’d been thinking in terms of extra lessons for the songs – but maybe we can find a way to build song material into course lessons for the new version… hmmmmmm… potentially difficult but perhaps hugely worthwhile – although not workable for a transferable framework. Perhaps we could also try and find some songs which used material we’d already covered anyway, too – hmmm, might go and start a thread about that. Thank you very much indeed for pushing me on with this…:-)

  3. You can sign me up for any and all of the above right now Aran! This is a really good idea with benefits in both directions, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

    • Brilliant. Every single comment on this so far is helping clarify my thinking – we probably need a list of ‘I want to subscribe to an album a month’ people and let it trigger the work when it gets to a certain number, or something like that, as far as the monthly idea goes…

  4. good blog aran. i think the idea of linking lessons and songs is good – i remember neil wyn jones doing a lesson at night school on the wirral about “on i” and he played “on i’n mynd i by gwyneth glyn – it brought it to life. incidently, am looking forward to seeing meinir gwilym play on
    new years eve at nant gwrtheyrn!

  5. Hi Aran,

    I’m a Welsh learner with SSiW and I use music and sport to help me learn as these are the things I generally talk about in English! Whenever I hear a song I like I try to learn it on my guitar, some I have even recorded and put online! The great thing about using songs is that there is no time to think or worry about getting confused.
    What would be a massive help for me would be somewhere with the Welsh lyrics on them so I can see what words I am saying. At the moment I am resorting to asking on twitter if anyone knows the words to certain songs!!
    I’ve learnt some great words through songs – adlewyrchu is probably my favourite so far! 🙂

  6. This is a no-lose proposal. We get to support Welsh musicians and, if we don’t like a particular piece of music, we don’t have to play it. A lot of the music on DistantDreamer93’s youtube channel doesn’t appeal to me, but so what? I tend to cringe whenever I see a harp, but I’m not going to apologize for my taste here: Mozart didn’t like the instrument, either.

    Written lyrics are pretty important. It’s disappointing that some Welsh-language CDs don’t have them (yo! Cowbois Rhos Bottanwg, I’m looking at you!)

    If you’re accepting suggestions, Aron Elias has a highly original, and musically brilliant sound. Doesn’t seem to have done much recently, though.

    • Great, thanks for that – it’s my hunch too that a monthly CD not to one’s personal taste but that still helped with learning the language would be liveable with…:-)

      • Oh, oh – we don’t even need CDs. Downloadable stuff via bandcamp.com or wherever would be great and cheaper to produce and we wouldn’t have to rip them for our mp3 players, ac yn y blaen, ac yn y blaen.

      • Yeah, that’s a really good point – we certainly need to make sure that different formats are available to taste – I’m not sure how the savings work out for the artists, but we can definitely ask.

  7. Awesome idea. I just cannot sing along and I prefer actually understanding the words. I’ve managed to get some words from songs to my “everyday” use (mostly from Brigyn).

    (And while reading this blog entry, I bought four cds. Thanks Aran.)

  8. One problem I see for Welsh musicians is lack of Internet presence. Take Meinir Gwilym as an example. Search on Pandora – nothing; grooveshark – nothing; spotify – nothing; bandcamp – nothing; soundcloud – nothing. She’s well represented on YouTube and has some presence on MySpace, but in several other places where people might be looking for something new and interesting — zip. And what are the chances of a Pandora-using Celtic music fan stumbling on to something Welsh? Slim to none.

    • That’s a really interesting point, Jan – particularly fascinating because I know virtually nothing about what is happening with English music. I wonder if that’s about time constraints – in which case, maybe if we could build a submission tool that could get Welsh music in more places, it would have real value…

    • Aran, pleser gweld y teulu bach ym Mhwllheli! Syniadau ac ysgog trafodaethau gwych yma ar y blog. Gwersi drwy ganeuon – syniad ardderchog, a ffordd naturiol o ddysgu a chyfoethogi gwybodaeth am iaith.

      • Diolch yn *fawr* am adael sylw! Bydd pob darn o fewnbwn oddi wrth artistiaid Cymraeg yn creu mwy fyth o ddiddordeb, dwi’n siwr – ac mae hyn i’w weld wedi tyfu o air sydyn ar y Maes i ran o’n cynllun am flwyddyn nesaf mewn llai nag wythnos…:-)

    • You’re right Jan, apart from Facebook and Twitter, all the other internet stuff I pretty much ignore. But for a reason…! It’s a fine balance really here in Wales – I’ve looked a lot at Sound Cloud and Spotify especially, because they’re the most popular I think. And it’s a hard one, because the tiny royalty you’d get from these might replace official downloads from iTunes and physical CD purchases. I’ll look again, and see what I can do…! Getting the music out there is the important thing I guess.

      • Meinir, would it help if we could build a tool that would let artists submit a song once and have it included wherever they chose? We might also be able to do some kind of an aggregation tool, to make it easier to find Welsh language content wherever it was. Nothing we do will need to include a layer of profit for us, so as long as we can get a good, close understanding of the economics from the artist’s side of things, there must be a way for us to increase turnover. I think subscription models have got particular potential for learners, who can value a song in a genre they wouldn’t otherwise buy just because of the language growth it gives them. But I wonder if there might be a subscription model for the current market – on a ‘get the most popular CD in [xyz] segment as voted for by you’ etc kind of basis…

        We’re also hearing a lot of interest from England – maybe a Welsh-focused tool like a combination of Gigwish and Crowdfunder could help get gigs to happen once enough people have committed to buying a ticket…?

      • bandcamp.com is supposed to be very good for independent artists – their basic fee is %15 of the purchase price (and you get to set the purchase price), plus they automatically make available a bunch of download formats (mp3, flac, whatever).

      • One of the interesting things is going to be finding the right balance between using what’s already available (and tools to make that easier for Welsh artists) and building stuff to perform similar functions but with a greater % going to the artist. I’ve heard good and bad things about all the big players – be it Bandcamp, ReverbNation, SoundCloud – one thing I think could be really worthwhile looking into (since we don’t have to start from a profit point of view) will be the social layering – how we introduce Welsh musicians to wider audiences, and create real involvement, a lot of which ties in with stuff we’re building for ourselves at the moment anyway…:-)

      • Meinir is right about this. A number of US musicians are opting out of the streaming sites like Spotify, and of course the monster of them all right now – Pandora, because they are ripping off musicians big time.

        A few group have bucked the trend and been able to use it for their benefit. Mumford and Sons being the biggest example, but whether this would work in a narrower field like Cymraeg is to be seen.

      • I think it’ll all come down to measuring, and to being able to start with a non-profit approach (for us, not for the musicians!). Properly done, I’m absolutely certain there’s a massively larger audience for Welsh music than anyone has accessed so far…:-)

  9. Last.fm does a really rather good job of finding me Welsh language songs I’m going to like based on what I’ve already listened to. As does searching on the tag “Cymraeg”

  10. Wi’n meddwl Cerddoriaeth Cymru yn Gymraeg ydy syniad dda neu Cerddorieth fel Caneu Enya,ond yn Gymraeg 🙂

  11. Top idea, there’s something about the association of words and music that makes language stick. My guess is that when the rhythms fit well together, that’s when it works best. Swedish friends tell me that listening to English rock was the way thst they really accelerated language learning as well as getting a bit of a cultural insight along the way. It strikes me that for some types of music, you also have to listen really intently to pick up the words and the story. That has to be good. I’ve found lots of Welsh bands I would really enjoy anyway even if they sang in English. It’s a great new source of music opened up by language, so, all things considered, it has to be a winner. Please give it a go if you’re not too overloaded.

  12. This is something I have thought about for some time. A couple of things that might be of interest. I’m Cymro Cymraeg from Llanelli living in California these days. We are organising our 3rd Saint David’s Day celebration in Los Angeles for March 1st 2014 and Meinir is coming over to headline our festival. Her first trip to the States and we’re thrilled to have her, I know she’s going to be a hit.
    The other thing is that I’ve been asked, for some time now, to start giving Welsh classes here. I’m starting them on January 13th at tthe Celtic Arts Centre here in L.A. My dificulty has always been that Welsh, like any other language, has its rules. I’m sure I learned them in school but I’ve forgotten them. I just speak it.The best way to get over that and to give people a genuine feel for the language is to teach them songs. That way the rules of the language come instinctively.
    I’ll be starting with nursery rhymes because they are repetitive, then we will move on to folk and even rock.
    I am firmly convinced that music is the way to teach Welsh. After all, are we not “”Gwlad y Gan”.

    • Wow – I’m surprised Meinir’s not performed in the US before – that’s quite a scoop! I’m sure it’ll go brilliantly for you. Good luck with the lessons – it’d be very interesting to hear how they go, and if you find any particular dos/don’ts that work for you. You might like to point your learners at our free materials if they want some extra practice (even though they’re not song-lyric-linked yet…;-)).

  13. As you no doubt know, I’m not keen on getting physical CDs; I’d always much rather have a digital copy, as ripping them is the only thing I ever, ever do with CDs anyway.

    However, I always feel a bit guilty buying digital copies of Welsh albums, because (as far as I understand it?) the artists get less per purchase of these than they do for a CD. I hope I’m wrong there, but it’s what I’ve heard. In any case, if there was a service I could use to get digital copies while giving a fair price to the artists, I’d be all over it.

  14. Put me down for some of this too mate. I’ve all but stopped listening to music these days as I tend to have Radio Cymru on in the car and I just haven’t got around to buying any Welsh Music yet. To have this ‘service’ would help a lot.

    In the words of JLP … “make it so”.

  15. I hear strains of John Coltrane in the background.. someone’s talkin’ about a few of my favorite things… languages and music! I’m all for anything that supports musical artists, and I’ve done my fair share to support Welsh artists from afar, and looking to do more. (although, as a side comment, I think it’s pretty universally true that 99.9% of all musicians have day jobs and can’t support themselves on their music alone – nothing special about Wales there!)

    • Yup, that’s a fair point – I suppose the interesting further question is how many musicians in Wales do actually support themselves on their music alone – for Welsh language musicians, I’ve a strong suspicion the answer may well be ‘none’. Also, it means they have to deal with a constant sense that they could be making a lot more money if they’d only sing in English, which puts them in an (unfairly?) tough situation. But to have an ‘app’ man interested in this – I think there may well be some fun stuff we can do in the course of 2014…:-)

  16. Colorama “Dere mewn”:

    Stedda lawr, ti moyn dished?
    Os na ti moyn un,
    Be’ ti ishe?
    Be’ di’r ots? Gweda pam lai.
    Ŷn ni ‘ma dim ond unwaith…

    Dim yn addas i’r Gogs, ond ‘ta waeth.

  17. Diolch Aran, If I can help out from a distance in any way, I would love to. We have had Sera Owen, and Colin Roberts here in Salem, MA a couple times over the last 3 or 4 years, and have talked about creating a Boston to Wales musician’s exchange program allowing Welsh artists to come to the area, stay in someone’s home, and get help setting up and promoting gigs, and then do the same in reverse.

    So far, the Welsh have been here, but we Bostonians have not returned the favor. Soon, I hope, when my repertoire of Welsh songs I’ve written is large enough.

    • Ooh, Phil, that is a SERIOUSLY great idea – I’m sure we could do some fantastic stuff along those lines. This is seeming more and more like one of those ideas that’s going to create its own momentum…:-))

  18. Both Sera and Colin are near to you. Sera is living in Caernafon, and might be the best connection for the exchange idea. She and I have been talking about for a few years now. Colin is near Llanfairblahblahblah…. Sorry, couldn’t resist that last one.

    If Meinir wants to do a two hopper, and stop on the East Coast first, I am sure we can set something up here in Boston. Maybe even with some connections we have at the Harvard Celtic Dept.

  19. This is a wonderful idea. I started listening to Meinir Gwilym when I started learning Welsh. I’ve been exploring Welsh music ever since. It was wonderful to find how much I could appreciate the music without understanding it. As time has gone on some of the lyrics have come into focus. Music and learning the language go well together.

    I would love to hear Meinir play live. I live in the deep south (well Cardiff) and I’ve not noticed any concerts down this way.

    I spoke with a member of a band* at Acapela some time back. They were on the cusp of being able to give up other work. I hope it’s still true and I hope we can enable these all these good people to continue as full time musicians.

    So what do we do now?

    (*I’m not naming names in case the information is private)

    • Doesn’t get much deeper south than that!…;-) Thank you very much indeed for your comment – I’m sure if Meinir reads this it will be moving for her to see the part she’s played in your journey to the language…:-)

      What next? A very good question.

      We’ve got a lot of interesting ideas flowing around, which is a great start. I want to go and look in more detail at some individual songs, and play around with different ways of fitting them into our learning structures. What I find out by doing that will help guide me towards a clearer picture of our first steps from a teaching point of view.

      I’m also going to be having a chat with Rhys Mwyn in the not-too-distant future, and it would be great to do some more thinking out loud, and maybe play with some details, with Meinir and Bryn in the new year.

      As we get a better understanding of what would be most helpful for the artists, and as we carry on increasing our programming resources, we should start to see some options for initial steps into some programming tools.

      Every time we take any kind of concrete step forwards (in terms of producing anything, or just clarifying possibilities), I’ll blog about it on here – and then if all goes well, at some point we’ll have lessons and/or tools that would benefit enormously from more input and more ideas from people like you who care about this…:-)

      How does that sound?

  20. Thank you – I’ve had some ideas percolating for years but no idea where they could be suggested. I was thinking about concerts for learners, using lyrics to learn some grammar, vocabulary, poetry and history. The weaving of learning the language and the energy of musical creativity would be a powerful combination.

    • Mmmm – the idea of concerts specifically for learners is really intriguing… I’m guessing it would need some kind of group commitment tool (because I know that getting enough people to gigs for Welsh speakers is a heck of a challenge, and learners are a very small subset of that) – but it might have some really interesting potential if it could be done successfully…

  21. I have read all the comments above so apologies if I’m repeating what someone has already said but …………,
    This would also work very very well with the specialised micro course for parents that you’re working on. But rather link to artists who’ve recorded nursery rhymes etc (with words and possibly translations so they know what they’re singing to their children?). Also I think there are some resources out there for “non-Welsh speaking” parents who take their children to Welsh nurseries etc. (Nia Llewelyn has written some resources – Storiau Sam y Ci and I think someone in the north has done something too – sorry for the extreme vague reference!). Maybe it would be possible to intergrate/link to these on a page specified for “Welsh for the family”?
    A big challenge for all learners it the jump they have to take to start using their Welsh outside of the class or whatever setting they learn the language. This can be magnified regarding parents who learn Welsh. How do we then instill and/or offer a pathway whereby step by step they can start using the language with their children in the home. Through “structured” songs and stories this at least takes the first step of introducing the use of Welsh in to the home. Hopefully then as confidence grows and they go through the 10 lessons of your course they can start using the language more and more?

    • What an excellent suggestion! I think we probably need to get the sessions for parents as they stand now out there being used, and leading to feedback, as a first step – but I think you’re absolutely right that music-related stuff would be a perfect follow up/addition for the family stuff. Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining those dots together!

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