Sometimes, connections can be made in the most unexpected spaces, and spark our creativity in ways we never thought possible. Over winter, at a time where schools were closed and socialising with others was limited, NYO’s young people wanted to meet each other and connect with others, to explore how making connections can power up our music making. During the last days of December, NYO musicians participated in an array of digital activities, forging connections with artists and creatives from a wide range of art forms and genres, in an attempt to think outside the box and see the music they love through new eyes.
We were delighted to meet Sam Sweeney, a renowned English traditional musician, former and inaugural artistic director of the National Folk Youth Ensemble, and member of the band Bellowhead from 2008 until the band’s disbandment in 2016, to learn more about traditional English music and create some new pieces, inspired by its rich melodies and rhythmic palette.
NYO musicians Clio (Flute) and Brendan (Horn) asked Sam a few questions about his work and ambitions as a folk artist, what he’s been up to during the pandemic and his advice to young musicians.
Clio: What does it mean for you to be working with NYO? You have previously worked with the National Youth Folk Ensemble. Are there differences working with classical musicians?
Sam: It is interesting for me to come and work with you and it does mean a lot to me. It is indeed a challenge because folk and classical music share very few references, very little musical language and the more barriers we can break down between these genres, the better.
Brendan: How did music as a whole influence your upbringing and your life as a teenager?
Sam: My parents are not musicians, but they are both in choirs, and they listened to a lot of music, so music was on at home all the time. This is how I got into folk music: via my parents’ record collection. I taught myself traditional pieces, learning to play by ear at a very young age, only listening to various CDs. And by the time I was 10, I entered a few national competitions and then started participating in events and festivals; a tiny little fiddle player with an electric violin. There wasn’t really such a thing as a folk music education then. It was always teaching yourself; I didn’t know any other kids who liked or knew anything about folk music until I was 12 and started going to these residential courses that still happen in the Northeast of England called Folkworks. There were 200 young people going to Durham University, and getting taught by these international folk superstars and that was really amazing. And all that time, I was teaching myself the drumkit and played along my dad’s rock record collection and taking violin lessons. I managed to reach Grade 8, I participated in Nottingham Youth Orchestra, as well as in various string quarters. So, it was a real mix. I think it’s so important that every person plays as many kinds of music as they possibly can.
Clio: In your sessions with us you have mentioned that you left university very shortly after to be in a band. How did that help you grow as a musician and what did you learn from that experience?
Sam: I always knew I was going to be a musician. So, when I did my A Levels, and everybody was off to university, because that’s what we are told to do, I knew I didn’t want to go, I just wanted to be a musician. It became very apparent as soon as I went to university that I wasn’t going to be allowed to do the things I really wanted to do, so I became involved with this band called Bellowhead from my very first week at university, and four months later when a member left the band, I was able to officially join and that run until 2016 until we split up. For me, as somebody who wanted to become a well-rounded musician, and succeed in my specific genre, there was nothing better than going on the road with this established band and just learning. And I was only 18 and they were quite older than me, but that experience taught me not only how to be a musician, but how to be a human.
Brendan: A really important aspect about being in NYO is reaching new people with classical music, especially young people and you mentioned that when you were really young, folk music wasn’t really one of these things that you get completely exposed to, how do you think you would go about trying to expose young people to folk music today?
Sam: Classical music and folk music in some way suffer from the same issues: people have a stereotypical view of what the genre is. I think we face similar obstacles musically and both kinds of music take contextualisation to get people to get into them. Nowadays having led the National Youth Folk Ensemble, through the audition process we met more than 300 young people, who were introduced to folk music through that. And now I’m in charge of the alumni and engagement programmes at the National Youth Folk Ensemble, so we go to Primary and Secondary schools to introduce young people to folk music. And I’m so pleased to see the excitement growing, especially in comparison to when I was younger. Now, there are folk festivals attracting thousands of people and every festival has a youth tent, a youth band participating and possibly offering youth workshops. When we were setting up the National Youth Folk Ensemble, we did a map of all the youth groups going on all over the country, and I presumed there would be four or five and it turned out there are well over a hundred youth folk ensembles happening all over the UK.
Clio: The pandemic has affected classical music, when we’re obviously now not being able to perform in groups. How has the pandemic affected folk music as at its core it’s quite a social way of music-making and enjoying?
Sam: It’s been brutal! Very similar to the classical music scene: just playing by yourself is not enough. The main enjoyment of music comes through communication. I have found it really difficult and it’s the thing I miss the most. A friend of mine put it really well: ‘Music is a language and we use it to communicate with each other’. And actually, what the coronavirus has done is essentially take away our mother tongue, so now what we’re doing is communicating through our second language, which happens to be English. But our mother tongue is music and we can’t use it anymore! So, even though I am involved in different types of online collaborations, I am desperate to communicate with my friends and have a fantastic jam session! And musicians are like athletes: we get out of shape, which is the case now. And a difference I believe is that in classical music, if you want to practise, you can practise your piece, scales, or repertoire, whereas in folk music there isn’t a repertoire, you may learn a tune and get from start to finish, but there’s nothing to progress to. And actually, the pinnacle of this music is reacting to what other people play in the moment and have a good time. And not being able to play at all, I really miss that. But, there are massive positives! I have been involved in a lot of teaching, I was part of this activity with NYO, and I’ve taught in the National Youth Folk Ensemble. And that is a great opportunity for me, as I have never taught before, because I was always on the road, whereas now I’m teaching a lot and it’s brilliant!
Clio: What is your advice for today’s teenage musicians?
Sam: Just have a massive breadth of musical experiences in your life, so I would advise you to be as broad as a musician as you possibly can, because pigeonholing yourself in one place is very limiting. So, I’d say be a sponge! Listen to everything, all kinds of music, play all kinds of music and don’t worry that anything is going to damage you musically, because there’s not such a thing in my opinion. And I’d wish I’d done that more when I was younger.
Look out for more interviews from our musicians as they explore music of other genres and how it can power up their creativity.
Photograph by © Camilla Greenwell.