Young Folk graduating

Tara Bradbury
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Program offers means of preserving province's unique cultural heritage

As a four year old, while other kids her age were singing Disney tunes or nursery rhymes, Ellen Power's repertoire may have consisted of songs like "I'se the B'y."

Power, who comes from a long line of Newfoundland traditional singers, has been singing on stage since she was in pre-school, starting with the annual folk festival in Burin. At the ripe old age of six, she joined Fergus O'Byrne's Young Folk at the Hall Program.

This week, at age 17, she's one of four participants who are graduating from the Young Folk program, performing with the group for the last time.

Established by O'Byrne 11 years ago with the collaboration of the Folk Arts Society, the Young Folk program provides a venue for kids aged seven to 17 to meet and share their talents when it comes to traditional music. O'Byrne, of Ryan's Fancy fame, also takes the program on the road across the province, giving children in smaller communities the chance to participate.

"The initial goal was somewhat self-serving," O'Byrne said. "I really saw a need to create a situation where young people were learning with others. I think Newfoundlanders of my generation were perhaps the last to learn at the kitchen table - nowadays everyone has their own rooms, their own TVs, and that gathering around the kitchen table is gone."

While there are plenty of opportunities for children to learn classical, contemporary and popular music, both in school and outside, folk music groups aren't as common, O'Byrne said.

The Young Folk program, with no registration fee, consists of two, two-hour workshops on consecutive Saturdays, followed by a concert on the final Sunday. Students don't have to be accomplished musicians, O'Byrne said, but must come with the ability to play or sing a song or two.

O'Byrne divides the children into groups of four or five, and assigns each one an experienced musician mentor.

"I pick them according to experience and age. The older ones take on the younger ones, while the young ones look up to the older ones. It's a breaking down of barriers," O'Byrne said.

"They form bands and they have to come up with a name of the band and an idea for what they want to play. We might end up with five renditions of "Mussels in the Corner," but then we get to see what each of the groups decided to do with the song."

Putting together a concert with relative strangers after just two jam sessions isn't actually as anxiety-provoking as you might think, Power explained.

"You'd think it would be wild panic. At the end of the first day, you're so scared, like, 'How are we going to do this?' But by the end, you're like, 'This is going to be awesome.'"

Rosemary Lawton is another Young Folk participant about to graduate from the program. Also 17, she sings and plays violin, bodhran and guitar.

"It's pretty short notice, but it's kind of cool to see how everything comes together in the end," she explained.

"Every now and then with a tune you have to just grin and bear it, but a lot of times it works out.

"There's not a lot of pressure, and we set our own standards, whereas with other (musical lessons), it's really intense. This is more relaxed, and you benefit from it, no matter what."

Both girls say the program's social aspect was just as important to them as the musical education. O'Byrne's secondary goal of offering a way to preserve the province's unique cultural heritage hasn't been lost on them, either.

"You learn a lot about your culture from the songs. You get to experience things from people who actually wrote them," said Lawton who "pretty much only listens to folk music" said. "I live in Newfoundland and Labrador and I know so little about it, but I can learn through music.

"The song 'Out from St. Leonard's,' for example, is about a bunch of people banished from their home. They basically had to put all their stuff in a boat and watch their house float away. You learn what your ancestors went through."

"A lot of the pop music is American culture, consumer culture," added Power. "I don't think we have to listen to folk music all the time, but I think it's important that young people get involved in it and not be afraid of it just because it isn't pop music."

As they're graduating from the Young Folk program, Power and Lawton are also finishing high school. Power has plans to become a conservation biologist; Lawton has applied to MUN's School of Music and will be auditioning in violin and voice.

Both girls, as well as their two fellow graduates, Chelsea Parsons and Jacquelyn Redmond, plan to continue with Young Folk at the Hall as mentors.

The 11th annual Young Folk at the Hall concert will take place Sunday at 2 p.m. at the LSPU Hall in St. John's. Tickets are $12 ($8 for students) and are available at the LSPU Hall box office, by calling 753-4531, or online at Twitter: @tara_bradbury


Organizations: Young Folk, Folk Arts Society, Ryan's School of Music

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Burin, St. John's

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