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The New Tradition

How the National Youth Folk Ensemble offers opportunities for young musicians

The National Youth Folk Ensemble was set up in 2016 by the English Folk Dance & Song Society to provide a progression route for talented young folk musicians. Ensemble members experience intensive residential courses where they create new arrangements of folk tunes, guided by inaugural Artistic Director Sam Sweeney and a team of leading folk artists. 

Watch this film to find out more: 

During the courses, which are funded by Arts Council England, the tutors support the young musicians to develop their individual musicianship and ensemble skills in an environment of creativity and collaboration. 

National Youth Folk Ensemble playing instruments

Elye Cuthbertson, aged 14, melodeon: 

I discovered folk music for the first time when I attended a course at Cecil Sharp House when I was 9 years-old, and I loved it! So I kept going, and later joined the London Youth Folk Ensemble. When I first watched the National Youth Folk Ensemble perform, they blew me away and inspired me to try to take my folk music to the next level. Since then, the Ensemble has taught me a lot about my own solo playing and playing in a group. The tutors are great at challenging us beyond what we thought we could do and they guide us really well, while letting us contribute our ideas and make the decisions. On the last residential course, they helped prepare us for our gig, but they emphasised the point that it was our gig, not theirs! We were also encouraged to think about how we play music: that it’s the small, subtle ‘nuances’ that really give a tune its life. I’ve also learned a lot just from playing with the other young people. It’s not often you get about 20 talented folk musicians under the age of 20 (or even 60!) all playing together! But when it happens, I think it’s pretty magical.

One important aim of the Ensemble programme is to raise the profile of folk music by taking it to new audiences. During our most recent residency, in Giggleswick, North Yorkshire, the Ensemble performed for local school children and we collaborated with youth music charity NYMAZ to film the concert for an online audience. 

National Youth Folk Ensemble on stage

Visit www.connectresound.live/watch to view the film and download the teachers’ resource pack. 

Sean Spicer, aged 16, harmonica:

The Giggleswick concert was terrific. We played five numbers that we had arranged together, from Winders Hornpipe to the experimental Apple Processional written by fiddle tutor Emma Reid, which had an eerie improvised introduction. Even though this was my first public performance with the Ensemble and I was slightly nervous as we went on stage, my butterflies were soon replaced by exhilaration. It was very special to play collaboratively in a unit, and having such a supportive and enthusiastic audience of school students brought the performance to life. It is rare in a folk audience to see so many young faces. With the live stream also going out across the country, it really felt as if we were making a connection and spreading the message.

National Youth Folk Ensemble on stage

Another aim is to improve practice in folk music education, and we are encouraging the Ensemble members to develop skills as educators and leaders. 

Rowan Collinson, aged 17, 5-string fiddle 

For me, performing with the National Youth Folk Ensemble is one of the best feelings in the world and this gig was particularly special. Working with NYMAZ, we had a brilliant opportunity to showcase folk music to children and young people in the theatre and online. This made it a very different experience to a normal gig and it was great to be able to include interactive workshop sections to really engage with our audience. Actively demonstrating how we took a tune from an old manuscript and created an arrangement really involved the audience, and they all seemed to enjoy clapping and stamping the different rhythms of 3/2 hornpipes and jigs!

Of course, interacting with an audience is quite a challenge – there are no second chances! The tutors helped us prepare, working not just on the music but also on our stage presence and confidence to communicate with the audience. We had an amazing session with musician and theatre practitioner Tim Dalling who helped us to really be ourselves on stage.

It was amazing experience to share something that means so much to us with a new young audience in such a dynamic and innovative way. I really hope this concert has inspired children across the country to get into folk music!

Young musician with five string fiddle

If you are interested in learning more about folk music, or are inspired to apply for the National Youth Folk Ensemble, come along to a free Youth Folk Sampler Day! These are creative workshop days for 14-18 year olds, with optional auditions, taking place across England in May half-term. 

Visit www.efdss.org/youthfolk to book your free place. 

All images by Camilla Greenwell courtesy of the National Youth Folk Ensemble.


If you are interested in finding out more about the Music Workshop Company’s range of bespoke experiences, or would like to be featured in our guest blog, contact us today.

Music Award for Young People Highlights Mental Health

Applications are open for a music award that supports young musicians from South East London.

Designed for artists between 16 and 25 years old who display musical talent, performance skills, business acumen and are passionate about forging a successful career, the Ed Renshaw Award was set up in 2012 in memory of an accomplished young guitarist who tragically took his own life aged just 30.

Renshaw was a gifted musician. Born in Greenwich in 1981 and a student at Thomas Tallis School, he began learning guitar aged 10. Music broadcaster Sandy Burnett called him: “a supremely talented jazz and classical guitarist.” But Renshaw also suffered with bouts of depression, and in 2011 he lost his struggle.

Judged by representatives from Peter Conway Management, a music management and promotions company which runs the award, and The Albany, a performing arts centre driven by the cultural diversity and creative mix of south east London, the Ed Renshaw Award is open to solo artists and bands. Cash prizes of between £1000 and £3000 help young musicians fund their career plans. Prizes also include mentorship and support from Peter Conway Management and rehearsal and performance space at The Albany. Winners are invited to partake in four live concerts between October 31st and November 3rd 2018, with headline acts to be announced later in the year. Musicians are chosen for their originality, talent and commitment, regardless of genre.

In its third bi-annual outing, Peter Conway Management and The Albany welcome a new partner, the national charity Youth Music. Funded by the National Lottery via Arts Council England, Youth Music exists to support children and young people, to build their confidence, resilience and self-esteem, and to develop the skills they need to succeed.

Youth Music’s CEO, Matt Griffiths says:

We’re very pleased to support this award, which will provide vital career progression opportunities and support young musicians who might otherwise miss out.

Renshaw’s life is regularly commemorated by concerts at The Albany. Staged by family and friends in partnership with Peter Conway Management, proceeds from the events combine with donations from members of the public towards the award.

Winners from 2016 were Megan Tuck and Blinkz Virgo, and Jay Johnson and in 2014 prizewinners included Lucy Cait whose song Gabriel’s Wharf has been featured on the BBC’s Steve Lamacq’s Rock College.

The closing date for applications is Thursday June 28th and shortlisted applicants will be interviewed by the awards panel on Saturday 14th July. Application forms can be found at thealbany.org.uk.

If you or a friend or colleague is suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, use the links on this advice page from Help Musicians to find help. 

Those needing help and emotional support can also call Music Support on 0800 030 6789 or call the Help Musicians’ dedicated mental health helpline on 0808 802 8008. It’s free of charge and someone will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to take your call.

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