The folk degree – a good thing?

It was quite an experience for me to go back to Newcastle the weekend just gone primarily because on the Monday I was reminded a little of folk degree life, in particular (not wishing to sound patronising to those involved) first year folk degree life. I was invited by an old friend to go out to the pub with he and a bunch of first years and given that this delayed driving home, I all too gladly agreed. Anyway, the reason I mention this is because after a while of sitting and chatting about folk music, the inevitable impromptu folk session happened. In the middle of a city centre pub, five people were suddenly playing folk music.


This is what I spent the bulk of the folk degree doing and isn’t it wonderful? The folk degree has plenty of critics within the folk world, and I’m not saying it’s perfect as this blog will continue to explain, but how can anyone argue that a large group of talented young folk enthusiasts all being in the same place, sharing ideas, learning from each other and bringing folk to a city centre is not a good thing baffles me a little. The folk scene is thriving at present and that’s great, but it is always a minority genre (which in some ways is a good thing, that’s why it is what it is) but I know from my own experience that as a youth, it was difficult to share this love of folk music with anyone of a like mind and a like age. To suddenly be in a place where lots of people my age liked nothing better than to talk about Irish flutes or 7/8 Bulgarian tunes was truly remarkable.

The degree is an unusual one obviously in that it isn’t a case of get this qualification so you can get into such and such a job and work your way up. I don’t present the degree certificate to festivals I’m hoping to play at! So what were my objectives in doing this degree? Well, first and foremost to become a better musician. I wanted to become a much better musician and learn about many more types of music and become a much more rounded musician and learn from the best. Well this can certainly be ticked off the list; I think the likes of Alistair Anderson, Desi Wilkinson, Catriona McDonald and Stewart Hardy can certainly qualify as the best. The ensemble module was a vital one here – I was only ever used to playing rock and blues with other people really, so it was a real eye opener to play with ‘folkies’ in a band and arrange things in that way as well as learning the value of shutting the hell up from time to time. My ability at playing mentally fast banjo was not what was required most of the time and I’m glad that I became more ‘musical’ in that way. I also have to mention the one to one tuition available to folk degree students, which is truly unbelievable in comparison to other degrees. Mine was an unusual experience in that I already had the best banjo teacher ever in the Midlands and the lack of banjoists over here made it difficult to get one to one banjo lessons from a banjo player, but do you know what I didn’t care. That’s not what I went there for, as I say I had the best one anyway. I went there to learn from musicians from different backgrounds and that’s what I did. I had lessons from Scottish fiddlers, American guitarists, Irish bodhran players, Northumbrian pipers. I learnt so much and did my best to adapt it all to clawhammer banjo, essentially my mission in life.

From a more career-minded point of view, I also wanted to make contacts, network and try and move up in the world. Again, I can certainly tick this off. The whole folk festival thing was pretty much new to me apart from seeing Cambridge on the TV so when it became apparent that one could email folk festivals looking for work, I did! The contacts made through the course were great and really helped me but, as I will say more about later, the work must come from the student. The course is not an agency.

More on that later, but ticking more things off the list, it was also very beneficial to do modules in jazz, Indian music, composition, music history, ethnomusicology and music in cultural theory. These gave me such a more well rounded education in music and relieved me of my main concern of doing the folk degree which was getting somewhat overfolked or folked out if you prefer.

So I’ve waxed lyrical about it so what are the criticisms? It’s difficult to pinpoint in my opinion what is actually a fault of the course and what is the fault of the student. For instance the commonly held criticism I hear is ‘folk degree graduates can’t perform, they’re just good players’. To be fair, and I have to be very careful here not to offend my fellow students and ex-students, I can see this as a valid criticism in some cases. But my Dad has a great saying in life – ‘you don’t close motorways because there are bad drivers’. The framework is not necessarily the problem, it is how you choose to approach it and what you want to make of it. I would argue that a lot of the reason for someone not being especially great on stage is this: they simply haven’t performed enough. You can’t blame the folk degree for that. On the degree alone, one performs in ensemble and a whole host of gigs organised by the degree itself. I’m not making out I was the model student, but I went out and played at open mics all the time from the age of 16. Was I a good performer then? God no. You only learn one way and I am an infinitely more confident performer now than I was then.

I was having a tedious conversation with a real old fuddy duddy some time ago. I won’t mention his name but his view was ‘oh well everything I learnt about folk music I learnt from family and other people’. Well that’s very nice, but for someone like me who didn’t grow up in any kind of tradition that wasn’t exactly an option and just how exactly is it such a bad thing for someone like me to go to university and learn from so many different types of folk musician and broaden and enhance my ability so much? If you really want folk to survive, you have to put your own bitterness out the window and allow youngsters to enjoy the music. I’m not saying there is a right or wrong way to learn the music, but there is more than one way. Attitudes of that kind of person don’t help, is he trying to claim that the music is the right only of people born into it? It won’t last long if so, and also it is a myth that it’s not possible to be a player of soul and a good player! Surely there is a place for both even if it was true, I would admire Bela Fleck’s outlandish technical ability whereas someone like say Pete Coe, while a very good banjoist, has a wonderfully distinctive sound in his playing and communicates well through it.

Another one is ‘all folk degree bands sound the same and have the same arrangements with great clinical playing but no soul’. I’m sorry but this is just factually untrue when you look at the range of folk degree graduates now performing at festivals etc. Are you seriously telling me that Emily Portman, Lucy Farrell and Johnny Kearney, Damien O’Kane, Walsh and Pound, Christi Andropolis, The Shee, Ross Couper and Tom Oakes does not represent a variation of folk music from right across the spectrum? I believe this view is based on a misconception which is assuming two things – 1) that all young folk performers have done the degree and 2) that folkworks and the folk degree are the same thing. They are not, folkworks is a summer school for school-aged children. I’m not having a pop at folkworks here, I think it’s good that such a thing exists but a lot of the arrangements from folkworks bands do tend to be very similar and yes there is a lot of very clinical, technically good playing but a bit of a lack of spark. But for god’s sake give the kids a break, they’re just kids! I’m not trying to patronise here nor am I saying that there aren’t talented and charismatic players from the folkworks world, but you can’t expect perfection that young. I would also support my view here by saying that of people I have spoken to on this subject, the bands that they have quoted to me as proving their criticisms of the folk degree did not actually contain any folk degree students or graduates! I’m not blaming them, from the outside it may look like this to a casual observer and everyone leaps to conclusions about things, but they are simply not true once you study in more detail.

I’m not saying the degree is perfect. There were modules where we didn’t really know what we were doing and sometimes the organisation was a little muddled but hey it’s a degree. No degree is perfect, nothing is perfect come to that, and there is certainly something that needs to be addressed in terms of recital marks where the criteria is vague and the tutors seem to have different ideas of how to mark it. A lot of the problem here is the fact that if, say, Catriona McDonald is assessing she is clearly going to know a lot more about fiddle players than guitarists. For me, there needs to be a system where you are either always assessed by someone who knows your instrument, or someone who doesn’t.

But in answer to the question I set for myself, of course it’s a good thing. It gives many young (or old) folk enthusiasts the opportunity to study the music in detail over a period of time with like minded people and in the form of the city centre sessions, brings folk music to people who would never dream of checking it out for themselves normally. With application from the student, it can improve someone’s musical ability and professional potential tenfold and it gives the genre immense credibility as a legitimate music that can be studied. Frankly, a lot of the criticisms I’ve heard of it come from people like the previously referred to old grump where it’s actually based on a determination the belittle young people in the genre by appointing themselves guardians of their own mythical idea of traditional or pure folk music. It’s just music at the end of the day, and there is more than one way to learn it. I think it’s wonderful that traditions exist and that people carry on those traditions in a, for want of a better word, quite strict way whilst others experiment with and evolve the music. There is an important place for both and it shouldn’t be a competition betwen the two and there needs to be an acceptance of everybody’s methods of doing things and a respect for them.