Fiddle, Harp, and Bones

“Fiddle, Harp, and Bones,” New Era, Sept. 1998, 28

Fiddle, Harp, and Bones

Add a modern twist to an old family music tradition and you get some great harmony.

You come home from school and ask your mom what’s for dinner. She tells you it’s soup and bread, and she asks you to hang up your jacket. You’re about to go out with some friends when she reminds you that you need to practice the bodhran for a while.

Have you stepped into a parallel universe? Is this some kind of weird dream? What in the world is a bodhran?

It’s all part of daily life for the Bigney brothers of Woodland Hills, Utah, because their family’s Celtic music group is a priority, and the boys have to practice.

Alex, Sam, and Simeon Bigney, ages 18, 16, and 14, respectively, make up the group Kirkmount, and though their music isn’t exactly the stuff you hear on the radio, it definitely appeals to a lot of people.

“Our music is interesting because it spans a generation gap,” says Alex. “Old people like to listen to it, but kids our age come out and think it’s really cool, too.”

Part of what makes it “cool” is that the three boys do all the music themselves. Alex plays the harp and the bones (and yes, the “bones” are exactly what they sound like they are); Sam plays the fiddle; and Simeon plays the cello and the aforementioned bodhran (pronounced “bow-run”), which is a sort of Gaelic drum.

Whatever happened to the piano, or the guitar, or even the clarinet?

“We’re not aware of any other group anywhere that has this particular arrangement of instruments,” Alex says. “But they’re all very traditional Celtic instruments.”

“Celtic,” by the way, is pronounced with a “K” sound at the beginning, and it refers primarily to the region of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Bagpipes are a Celtic instrument you may have heard before, and Enya is a popular Celtic musician.

Aside from the choice of instruments, Kirkmount differs even from other Celtic groups because of their music—they write most of it themselves.

“It’s not extremely common for groups to write their own music,” says Sam, who does most of the writing for Kirkmount. “Some people will write a tune or two, but not a lot.”

Sam’s first tune was called “Late Summer Aire.” He first got a taste of fame when he and his brothers attended a fiddle camp—yes, a fiddle camp—in northern California, and the whole camp wound up playing his song. After that, the boys were hooked.

What brought them to a fiddle camp in the first place? That’s where the family ties come in. The boys’ grandfather used to invite them frequently to go to a Scottish fiddling camp with him, but they always declined.

“But one year, our grandparents were going to Ukraine on a mission. We weren’t going to see them for a while, so we decided we’d better go to the camp,” says Alex. “We went and really enjoyed the music, and that’s how we got started.”

The boys’ parents, Alex and Marilyn, began hiring professional musicians to come do workshops at the Bigney home. About 20 or so have been through, and many of them have done shows with the Bigneys afterwards, the money going to help pay for expenses. (The income from Kirkmount’s two CDs helps cover costs, too.)

It’s really a family affair. Sister Bigney says her husband “knows how to critique. He critiques the boys, and he listens, and he knows enough about Celtic music to help them. He has an exceptional ear.”

What about Mom? She supports. “I took them to their lessons for quite a few years,” she says. “I’m a great expert—on paper. I’m a great appreciator of music.”

Eventually, even the boys’ younger sisters, Miriam and Falcon, will get in on the act, as they are learning to play the viola and guitar.

“It would be really great to have a whole family thing,” Sam says. “It’s not something many people do as a family.”

How strong are the family ties with the Bigneys? Well, they practice about two hours a day together on the average, but sometimes it’s as much as eight hours. And they don’t really get tired of each other.

“We have our small quarrels,” Sam says, “but I think even the music helps us to solve those and come to an understanding of each other. I think music can touch people in ways that words can’t.”

The name Kirkmount is the name of the small village in Nova Scotia where their grandfather grew up. (Their great-great-grandfather, Simeon Bigney, was one of the first members of the Church there.) The covers of their CDs are collages of old family photos. Their ancestors were Celtic and played many of the same tunes that the Bigneys play now.

“We’re carrying on a tradition,” Alex says.

And Sister Bigney adds, “It’s important for people to find out what their traditions are, and music is one of those important things that helps you understand how your ancestors felt, what they did for entertainment, all the emotions they had. Music is a language.”

Alex says, “This music helps us get closer to our grandparents. They come to many of the shows, whenever they can, and they’ve supported us all through our musical experience.”

This family is tied together so much that Sam and his grandfather are even home teaching companions.

Obviously, the group has a strong interest in genealogy and family bonds. Sam explains that one of the highlights of his musical career so far has been playing his fiddle at the graves of some of his ancestors in Nova Scotia.

Furthermore, the group’s travels have taken them to Boston, where their father lived as a youth. Simeon (whose name is pronounced like “Simon”) says seeing where his dad went to church “was a good experience,” as was spending so much quality time with his brothers.

The Bigneys’ music doesn’t have any lyrics, so it’s difficult to express any kind of particular message in a song. But their music is expressive in its own way, creating moods and feelings pretty well. The music makes you feel like you’ve been taken back in time, and taken to Ireland. And since the gospel should be part of everything we do, the Bigneys manage to tie it all together.

“We don’t say onstage ‘Yes, we’re LDS,’ but I think people know,” Alex says. “Since we come from Utah, there have been people who come up and say, ‘Are you Mormon?’”

Sam adds, “We try to set a good example for people. The music helps us realize that God gives us talents, and we hope we can use them to our best abilities and share them with other people.” The Bigneys feel they must rely on the Lord when they perform.

“As we’re playing the music, we really become aware of whether the Spirit is with us or not,” Alex says. “If we don’t have the right spirit with us, we know we don’t play as well.” As a result, the group always has a prayer before they perform.

“You have to realize where the talents are coming from,” Alex says.

But it’s not all play and no work for Kirkmount. The boys practice every day, and while they enjoy all the regular teenage boy stuff—basketball, hiking, reading, and what-not—sometimes the music has to take them away from those things. They’ve sometimes missed ward basketball games and Boy Scout campouts because they had performances.

“But our Young Men and Young Women groups are pretty supportive,” says Sam. “They’ve come to our shows before.”

And so in the end, it’s all worth it. The stronger love for their immediate family, the more powerful connection to their grandfather and distant ancestors, the satisfaction they get from using the talents God has given them to uplift others—all that makes everything worthwhile. “The music helps me to know who I am,” says Sam, “and to express myself in a way that words can’t. We want to help, not only ourselves, but other people gain a testimony as well. Music can touch hearts.”

Photography by Ted Van Horn

That’s Simon (left) on cello, Sam on fiddle, and Alex on harp. (Above, inset) that’s Alex and Grandma Bigney on their knees.

Kirkmount is the village in Nova Scotia where their grandfather grew up. Their great-great-grandfather, Simeon, was one of the first members of the Church there. The Bigney ancestors played many of the same tunes the boys now play. “We’re carrying on a tradition,” says Alex.

They’re comfortable in a modern recording studio, in traditional Kirkmount garb, and most especially with the whole family.