Folkworks Summer School

The Glasshouse (formerly Sage Gateshead) working hard to keep the Folk Tradition alive
Colin Petch
September 12, 2023

There are numerous inspirational names in Folk Music that have worked tirelessly over the decades to ensure the tradition is not only kept alive and relevant, but have also understood that encouraging and welcoming young musicians to traditional music – the peoples music – is essential to the future of a genre that many of us know more about than we might first think.

One such stalwart is the indomitable Northumbrian Piper, Concertina player, Composer and Educator, Alistair Anderson, whose championing of folk music is not only revered and beloved in the North of England – but across the Globe.

This 75 year-old musician is the founder of one of the most influential initiatives in the UK to enthuse, develop and support the next generation of folk musicians. The Folkworks Youth Summer School concept was created by Alistair and he was also the programme’s co-director from its inception in 1986 – through to 2009.

Another world-class entity firmly anchored in the North, is Sage Gateshead – a music centre that cites its very existence as being: ‘For audiences, for artists, for the North and for the long term.’ A dedicated and diverse team of professionals from Sage Gateshead work with musicians and partners to ensure that Alistair’s vision in 2023 and beyond, is every bit as relevant as it was in the 80s – and this summer with the help of tutors Jen Butterworth, Dave Gray, Sam Patridge, Miranda Rutter and Sam Sweeney, they have delivered a fantastic Folkworks – the first physical Summer School since the arrival of the pandemic.

Before we get to that, we must talk about a massively significant concert that took place at The Sage earlier this year, to mark Alistair Anderson’s 75th birthday – but just as importantly – to raise essential funds to provide bursaries for young people, who because of financial circumstances might not otherwise be able to take part in a residential experience. So, just as Folk Music is for all of us – Alistair and the Folkworks team are absolutely committed to the fact that the annual summer schools are available to all young people who would like to take part.

This year’s residential took place at the end of August at The Sill, which is the UK’s National Landscape Discovery Centre, at Bardon Mill in Northumberland. It’s unlikely there’s a more impressive place to immerse yourself in music, tradition, learning and the outdoors, than this venue – positioned alongside Hadrian’s Wall and a short walk from the awe-inspiring views at Sycamore Gap and Steel Rigg. The Sill is also home to the fab YHA Hostel that was the base for many of the Folkworks musicians during the week.

We couldn’t miss a chance to head to Northumberland and see first-hand what Folkworks was all about. So we asked the Sage Experts – and they said yes:

When we arrived, you could hear the fiddle playing and the laughter of the students and staff from the car park – and under a perfect blue sky, in this ancient landscape – it almost took the breath away. Head into the visitor centre that opened in 2017, and you’re greeted by an exquisite Willow-Woven Curlew – the bird that is the symbol of the National Park. We'd yet to meet anyone…but were already pushing down the emotion…

First off we meet Emma and Grace, both of whom are absolutely central to the project. Grace Smith is the Folkworks Summer School Producer and she immediately explains: “Folkworks and the Summer School began as a place for young people to explore the music. I actually went to the summer schools when I was young. It was such a brilliant experience for me to meet other musicians my age - and I'm still friends and actually work with a lot of the people that I met there as a musician myself.

Grace Smith - Folkworks Summer School Producer
Grace Smith - Folkworks Summer School Producer

“I really am passionate about the opportunity that this can be for young musicians. I think all music making for young people is incredibly important, and it's increasingly difficult for young people to have access to music education. So it's really important that there are opportunities for young people to explore music  - and folk music in particular is brilliant, because it opens up so many doors in terms of musical skills. Learning by ear is such a brilliant way to learn music and to be able to share music with other people.

“It's a really great way to be creative with your musicmaking. You might learn a traditional tune, but there's so many avenues you could take that, in terms of what you might want to do with it, you know?

“Young people can really put their own stamp on a piece of music. There aren't really rules of what you are limited to. We know that we've got this repertoire to play with and it's for them [the musicians] to kind of make it their own. So it's a great way for them to get creative and work together too. We've got musicians from all over the UK here this week to celebrate musical traditions and it's a great opportunity for everyone.

Going back to your own musical journey, are you from a family of folk enthusiasts? Was your music taking you down the folk route as a young person?

Grace: “When I was in primary school I was learning violin with the local music service and I was really enjoying that. I'm lucky that my parents were very supportive and really valued the kind of musicmaking I was interested in and took me to a local folk festival.

“So that was my first taste of folk music and then I found out that there was this chance to do more of it and to meet other young people that were interested in folk music [through Folkworks]. So I went to the Junior Summer School that year and actually that’s what got me into the music. It was so cool to meet so many other musicians and get such an intensive experience of playing this music, at that age.

Can you tell us about this year’s programme?

“This year we had space for forty young people. You don't have to have played folk music before. We've got some people here who have done bits of folk music before, but some people, it's their first experience of folk music and it's a real opportunity.

“We've been out for walks in the local area. We are really close to Hadrian's Wall, so it's a beautiful place to be. Lots of games, lots of tunes, sessions and music making in between. “Lots of informal musicmaking. We've had a tutor concert, we've had dances, so as well as their music workshops they’re hanging out with the tutor team.

“We're doing lots the whole time to make them feel welcome and really make sure they're getting what they want out of the week. It really is a lovely, lovely atmosphere and they've been brilliant. They all go home tomorrow with lots of new skills, feeling absolutely amazing about what they've achieved and what they've been part of."

And from a Sage/Practitioner perspective – is there continuity for the young people after this week?

“It's really important to me that they have opportunities to build on their skills. Maybe it's specifically folk music, maybe it's other types of music, but we definitely want to make sure we can say goodbye to them knowing that they know where they could take this next. If they've really been inspired and want to do more, hopefully they will come back to folk at summer school next year.

“But also, I'd really like it if through the year they have other chances to build on their skills and use this music and the music techniques they’re learning. I hope they want to continue it throughout their own music making and away from Folkworks."

You've already mentioned that this programme was the catalyst for your own career. Can you tell us a bit about the musicmaking that you're involved in now, away from here?

“As well as my role here, I play in a few different folk music bands. I play in a trio, The Grace Smith Trio - we play lots of traditional English music and our own repertoire of tunes. [The amazing Sam Partridge is also a member.]

“I play in a French dance band called Cri du Canard - which is a lot of fun. [Again with Sam - and fellow Folkworks Tutor Dave Gray.] I play with a brilliant singer called Katie Doherty, who's based up in the North East - and then I do lots of music education work in Manchester: I teach one-to-one violin and viola lessons and lots of group music education projects.”

Tutors Sam Partridge, Jen Butterworth And Dave Gray Lead A Folkworks Workshop
Tutors Sam Partridge, Jen Butterworth And Dave Gray Lead A Folkworks Workshop

Emma Elliott is the Schools Producer at Sage Gateshead. Her role is concerned with any projects that are education/children/young people focussed. At The Sill Emma is managing the Folkworks Summer School, but the ‘day job’ involves some rather amazing projects like ‘The Big Sing’ and ‘The Mini Big Sing’.

Emma: “There's The Big Sing, and then there's The Big Sing for Mini Singers. Big Sing is our slightly older one, with the final event in Hall 1, which is the largest room at SAGE.

“That's for Key Stage 2 and 3. [Participants] sign up with their school, with their teacher. Often not a musical lead teacher. The idea is that through us and through Sing Up, we provide the teacher training and it's very much an enjoyment.

“It's about being involved in the singing. Creating a love for singing, and giving the confidence to the teacher that they can do it, rather than the strict learning of it.

“The younger children do their performance in Hall 2 – which is a smaller space for them. We have lots of props and lots of themes. We’ve just had ‘Seaside’ – it was really lovely. Really engaging.”

As a teacher and a musical practitioner, how important is it to you that there are not only valuable partnerships with organisations like The Sage, but we cherish our music in schools?

“Totally. I've seen it first-hand. There's more and more schools not able to deliver GCSE Music - not doing ‘A’ Level music, so therefore the progression route to do it any further isn’t there. As a community and a school, we know, music is invaluable.

“I think with the new music curriculum, it is really positive that it's about engaging and playing and having access to an instrument rather than necessarily being the best at performing. It's just the enjoyment and taking part in music that’s important. Hopefully what we can offer as an organisation here [with Folkworks] and with Big Sing make a difference.

“Some of our schools have been working with us for years. They come as far away as Cumbria and they absolutely love it. It's the community and it's the well-being side of music that we can't lose.”

And your involvement here – with Folkworks? You’ve done it. It is rather amazing.

“Yeah, absolutely, and it's the first one back [after Covid]. They're really loving it. It's quite small, but we wanted it to be small and good, rather than overstretching ourselves. I'm literally trying to plan for next year - and hopefully increase it and make it larger.

“We have some incredible tutors. We have a real range. The students: I think we've got some real beginners that have learnt instruments a little bit, or a little bit in school, and this is the first time playing as groups and playing as ensemble, and playing by ear – but there are some students that are in our CAT programme, who are playing at grade 6 or 7, who are very used to notation and reading. Now, they’re playing by ear. And in an ensemble, that's new. So it's two ends of the spectrum. But it's really, really lush. Amazing.”

And Emma’s creative practice away from work?

“It’s less and less now I’m a Mum. I was a singer: I went to Canterbury and did a music degree, and then I went to Durham and did my PGCE. I've always played and sung, but the more teaching I did, the less, probably, I did of performing. All my best friends in my circle are musicians, so we do some. But less and less. Now I'm a Mum and a worker!”

L-R: Emma (Schools Producer), Ewan, Cerys, Harry, Harrison And Martha
L-R: Emma (Schools Producer), Ewan, Cerys, Harry, Harrison And Martha

But Alistair’s vision of constantly regenerating the folk scene would be nothing without the vital ingredient: the young people.

And so we sit down with Martha from Newcastle, Harrison from Stockport, Harry from Sheffield, Cerys from Newcastle and Ewan from Bolton.

Harry is quick to confirm that the week has been ‘very fun’ – and when asked – tells us that his parents are both folk musicians and his mum attended Folkworks herself as a young person.

He then has a question for us: asking if we remembered Bagpuss from TV? (Of course.) “The one about the pink cat? My Grandma was in that: She played the ragdoll that sits up on the shelf.”

As an aside Harry also adds that Grandma was recently on TV again – playing her concertina and singing. We’re very impressed.

Ewan tells us that at home, he’s a member of a folk group with the Bolton Music Service.

He adds: “It’s a great experience to be here and a great opportunity to be able to play folk music with other people and it’s making folk music more accessible to people.”

And your band? What are you called?

“GNFE. Greater Northern Folk Ensemble.” (Look out for them – and remember – you heard it here first.)

Martha explains that her mum is Irish and has played folk music for as long as she can remember. “I’m possibly going to make a lot of music” she tells us. We believe her.

Harrison: “In Stockport I help run a music group. A folk group called Fosbrooks [Folk Education Trust] it's been going for a very long time. We have a lot of younger children around that we help teach folk tunes to, and we clog dance as well, and then we travel all around. We've been to a lot of places in Europe. Last week we were in Whitby performing at Whitby Folk Week, and yeah, it's really, it's really great.”

Before we know it, it will be this time next year and young people will be thinking: 'Should I go along to Folkworks? It might be too much for me. Will it be for me? Why should they? And what would you tell them if they're worried about getting involved?'

Ewan: “I think what's been really great about Folkworks this week is that while we have had lots of time for music making, we've also had time to get to know each other and do games and Icebreakers, which has been really good, so we feel really friendly around each other.

“So there's not like this awkward barrier if we just play music and that's it. We really do get to know each other. We have like a little community here that you create, so it's really nice to have that.”

And with those profound words, they’re all off via a drink and a snack to some more music making.

If we name-drop Sam Sweeney, you’re likely to think of the Somerset Song-maker and Bellowheader that Mark Radcliffe described as ‘One of the defining English Fiddle Players of his generation’. What we didn’t know is that Sam too is a Folkworks alumni – and is back this week as part of the team of tutors. We chat as his group are sent off to find some inspiration:

Sam: “We’ve just sent them out on a composition task. Obviously we are in the very, very beautiful settings of the Sill and the views are incredible, so we've sent them onto the roof and asked them to use the landscape and the surrounding nature, to come up with a little fragment of music. Then they're going to use the few notes they get from the landscape and that will form the basis of a little tune that they're going to write. Hopefully they'll come back with a little fragment of music that they can then expand into a full folk tune themselves.”

And how has the week been?

“When the juniors arrived, we started all together and we do have a big song and a big tune that both age groups are learning so that in the Sharing Event tomorrow we can all do some stuff together. I've been mostly with the youth group, and we've learned four tunes and one song. We've been looking at how to kind of breathe life and get sort of lift and dance-ability into these traditional tunes and really breathe some life into it.”

You mentioned that you've been in this place where these young people are now. You came along to Folkworks. Was that the start of your ‘folk’ journey?

“I started playing fiddle when I was six, but folk was still a relatively niche thing, and it's quite difficult for young people to get into it because they're not, by and large, going to discover folk music at school. So if they're having lessons at school, they'll be doing the sort of classical repertoire or whatever with a teacher, which is a brilliant and very valid thing.

“It's what I did. But when I was 12, (back when Folkworks summer schools were at Hilden Bead [College in Durham], I went on the youth summer school from when I was 12 all the way through to when I was 17. And it was fantastic. I was taught by all kinds of people: Chris Wood, Chris Stout, - all kinds of people from all over the world.

“And it was genuinely an amazing thing, and I have to say, My career in music would have been vastly different if I had not come to Folkworks - because when I was 17, I was in the band that John Boden was leading. A few months later, after having met him as my tutor, he asked me if I would join Bellowhead.

“As an educational thing. It's always been a fantastic thing, but also it literally kickstarted my career coming on these summer schools and meeting people like John, then joining bands and so on. So without Folkworks summer school, I don't know if I'd be doing what I'm doing."

Tell me a bit about how important you think this [folk] music is for young people still – and them being able to access it. And being able to keep this cycle going of young people coming in.

“I think it's massively, massively important. I think music and the arts are getting harder and harder to access, aren't they?

“And it's a tragedy really. I think the thing is with learning music, it's like learning a language and when young people are learning music and particularly folk music - because the great thing with folk music is it's relatively easy to get into and to start playing.

“You don't need that much technical ability to start playing folk tunes with other people, and it's a social type of music. So for me anyway, one of the reasons I love folk education is because you can get young people of varying abilities and in a very short amount of time, get them playing music socially and communicating, using this language of music, this universal language of music.

“Then they're suddenly all together, they're gelling and they're communicating with this magical language of music. So I do think it's incredibly important that music is a part of young people's lives.

“It is massively important - and I think the great thing with folk music is that it's not owned by anybody. Everybody owns folk music. It is yours. Once you've learned a tune, it's your tune. Suddenly, you know, all you need to learn is 16 bars of music, sometimes less than that and all of a sudden you have this shared repertoire. I think the social aspect of it is incredibly, incredibly important.

“And also the great thing with folk music is, you can learn a bit of folk music, which is then just a springboard to loads of other types of music. They're not individual pools. All music is interwoven, but folk music, because it is owned by us, it gives you license to do whatever you want to do with it. For me, I think it's a really important thing for young people to learn.

"And it also gives people a sort of link to previous generations, previous people. People who have been playing these tunes for 2,3,400 years. And it kind of gives you this sort of magical link to people who have played these tunes before.

“You know, I think it's magic. Anyway.”

The Folkworks Summer School initiative is so much more than a few days away making lovely music. It is a community-building exercise that is having a proven lifelong impact on generations of young people. And will continue to do so – as long as our essential creative organisations like Sage Gateshead are supported and funded appropriately.