About us

Not so much a summer school as a summer holiday.


What is Variations? Variations is a week-long music break for amateur chamber music players.

The event  takes place in the award-winning Macphail Centre, Mill Street, Ullapool, at the head of Loch Broom in the Scottish Highlands. 

Under the expert guidance of a team of  professional tutors, you will play chamber music, in predetermined groups, during the mornings  from Sunday to Friday.   Some of these morning sessions are tutored but the emphasis is on 'organised informality' so there will be plenty of opportunity to consult the coaches on any technical or musical issues you may have.


The afternoon programme features optional masterclasses, clinics (on aspects of technique) larger group sessions mixing strings and wind and the opportunity to play as part of the Edinburgh Quartet in a feature unique to chamber music courses, entitled 'The Apprentice’. In these sessions, participants can sign up to play a short piece of music alongside the professional tutors as a member of a professional string quartet - or as a quintet in the case of wind players/pianist (likened to moving from ‘driving a mini to driving a Porsche’!)

The week’s programme also includes two public evening concerts by the Edinburgh Quartet and wind tutors, one on the opening Saturday, followed by a welcome reception, and the other mid-week. A closing supper is organised on the Friday night, following the participants’ concert.


There will also be facilities at the Macphail Centre and Ceilidh Place for you to continue to play before and after the day’s programme, should you wish.


By enjoying such an intensive period of playing, we hope that you will enhance your skills and learn new repertoire, as well as enjoying the company and the surroundings.

Can I come as an individual, or do I have to be in an existing group?  And how good do I have to be?

You can come either as an existing group or as an individual.  On the booking form, we ask for some information on your standard, and we follow this up with a short questionnaire, so that the tutors can match you up with others of your level.

Most participants come to Variations in pre-formed groups, many of which have played together for several years. However, we also welcome individual players who we aim to put into chamber groups with others who play at about the same level. This process can take some time and so players who apply as individuals are encouraged to apply early in the year. Sometimes it proves impossible to create chamber groups from those individuals who apply late and when this happens we recommend that they return the following year.

"...the right balance of seriousness, humour and encouragement"

"I gained a lot from the Quartet's advice..... I also liked the relaxed 'feel' to the course.  It really put me at my ease."

Will I have time to explore the area?

If you’d like to have a rest from chamber music, and take advantage of the local environment, a range of other outdoor activities will be on offer – from guided hill walks and climbing in the spectacular mountains of the North West Highlands to loch and sea fishing, and boat trips to the Summer Isles.   Each day's programme finishes at 5pm although the Macphail Centre is open for those who wish to play on until 6pm.

"We were spoiled, as things turned out."

And, after a day of music-making at the Macphail Centre, you can continue playing at the Ceilidh Place, or relax in one of the many bars and bistros.  The tutors will give two public concerts during the week, on the opening Saturday and Wednesday. A complimentary ticket for these concerts is included in your registration fee.

"I mainly enjoyed being thrown together with some new colleagues...however, close behind was the pleasure of being coached and learning how to be a better chamber music player."

How much does it cost?  And what does the fee include?

The cost of the week will be £430 for bookings received by 31st March 2019 and £480 for bookings received thereafter. The closing date for bookings is Wednesday 1st May 2019. The cost includes buffet lunch, teas coffees, home baking and other refreshments during the day, admission to  concerts and all the musical activities taking place during the week.  More information under 'Book Your Place'.

We hope to offer substantial discounts for students and others who are unable to pay the full fee.  Please contact Jonathan Smithers,  Variations Manager at info@variationsscotland.co.uk.

Please be aware that the cost of travel and accommodation is not included, but we can advise and assist you with your arrangements.

Jonathan Smithers joined Variations as Manager for the 2017 course, continued in the role to organise Variations 2018 and will organise the 2019 course. Jonathan is based in Helensburgh, Argyll & Bute, and has been involved in orchestral and chamber music making for more than 35 years. He has considerable professional experience of management, was a Variations Board trustee for 3 years, was Chairman of the Helensburgh Orchestra for 6 years and is currently Treasurer of the Glasgow based Amicus Orchestra.