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University celebrates a decade of folk

It has produced some of the leading artists in the UK folk scene. Now, Newcastle University’s Folk and Traditional Music degree is celebrating its 10th birthday.

Graduates, current students and course leaders, will be marking the milestone with a concert at the iconic The Sage Gateshead venue on Monday, 7 May. Those performing include the critically acclaimed and Radio 2 Folk Award nominated band The Shee and duo Ross Couper and Tom Oakes. The folk degree fiddle band and course tutors will also appear and there will be a grand finale where graduates and current students will play together for the first time.

Since it began in 2002, many graduates have gone on to become prominent performers. Those who have enjoyed success include Rachael McShane, a vocalist and cellist with award winning band Bellowhead; Niopha Keegan, who is part of Radio 2 Folk Award winning band the Unthanks, Ian Stephenson who is a member of the bands Kan and Baltic Crossing, duo Jonathan Kearney and Lucy Farrell and solo singer Emily Portman.

Students on the four-year degree – which is the only one if its kind in England - are taught by some of the best-known names in folk. Their lecturers include acclaimed Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, the renowned Shetland fiddle player Catriona Macdonald, vocal tutor Sandra Kerr, flautist Desi Wilkinson, bagpiper Simon McKerrell and Alistair Anderson, an internationally recognised concertina virtuoso, Northumbrian piper and composer, who founded the course in 2002. The students also benefit from a wide range of high profile visiting lecturers who share their expertise in traditional music.

Students study instruments including the fiddle, voice, banjo, concertina, and pipes, as well as learning about the history of folk and traditional music. A total of 120 students have graduated since the course started and 72 are currently studying for their degree.

Course leader Catriona Macdonald said: “We are incredibly proud of our students and our graduates. Many of them have gone on to be forces in the performing arena of the folk and traditional music scene and I think that is testament to the quality of the students we attract and the great tuition they receive while on the course. Other students have gone on to teach traditional music, to become folk music agents or continued to study at post-graduate level.

“We attract students from all over the country and even from countries such as the US, Scandinavia and Japan. They love the fact they are with other people who love traditional music as much as they do.

“The concert at The Sage Gateshead will be wonderful way to celebrate their talent and what we do. It is the perfect venue as our students spend a lot of time practising and performing there.”

Alistair Anderson was one of the founders of the course. While he was a director of Folkworks, now part of The Sage Gateshead, he helped run an annual youth summer school for a growing number of young performers who asked why there was no degree course in folk music. He said: “These youngsters insisted there should be a course and Newcastle was the ideal place due to its strong folk music heritage and the breadth of musical horizons amongst the staff at the University.

“I am very proud of what has been achieved. The quality of the students who are coming through and our graduates is still really exciting.”

Rachel Newton sings and plays harp for The Shee, which was formed by folk degree graduates. She said: "I wanted to come to Newcastle to study as it was the only degree which looked at all kinds of folk and traditional music. I really enjoyed my four years studying there and one of the best things about the experience was that we got to meet people from different kinds of backgrounds who like the same music and that's what happened with The Shee.”

Kieran Szifris, plays in the successful Monster Ceilidh Band and graduated in 2006. He said: "The course was a fantastic four year exploration of folk music and it enabled myself and others to explore their own ideas whilst being guided by some incredible musicians. We learned to play solo, in ensembles and were encouraged to compose in different styles, to teach and to have a basic idea of music business. The business side of things really helped me as four years later I am a professional musician and have played all over the world with my own folk band. Thanks to the course I have been able to fully realise a successful career in folk music. "

Kieran is organizing an all-day folk music celebration, featuring past and present students on Sunday, 6 May at The Cumberland Arms, in Byker, Newcastle. The pub, which is a focus for folk music in Newcastle, is also celebrating its 10th birthday and past and present folk degree students will be taking part. Fundraising for Folkworks summer school bursaries for underprivileged young musicians, will take place throughout the day.

For more information about the concert, visit

Notes to editors

·     The concert will take place in Hall One of The Sage Gateshead.

published on: 2 May 2012