Through the eyes of an apprentice

Every once in awhile, the Folk Arts & Heritage Program welcomes an intern. It’s a win-win situation. The intern gets exposed to the work of a public folklorist (doing fieldwork, managing grants, and archiving field collected materials). The public folklorist gets help with transcribing recorded interviews and the opportunity to mentor the next generation. This spring, that intern has been Hampshire College sophomore and fiddler extraordinaire, Tatiana Hargreaves.

Tatiana HargreavesHere is her guest blog post about her experience:

I started my internship after returning from the Dosti Music Project in March. As preparation, I read Maggie’s book Keepers of Tradition and was immediately struck by the vast array of traditions documented in it. I had no idea Massachusetts held so much culture and so many traditions. Everything in the book fascinated me, but knowing I would be leaving for tour in May, we decided to focus on the three music apprenticeships: South Indian mridangam, Carnatic vocals, and Irish Uilleann piping. I was especially excited about the two South Indian apprenticeships as a way to follow up my experience at Dosti. Our role was to document the progress of the apprenticeships by conducting site visits to observe a lesson and ask follow-up questions about the apprenticeship.

Our first site visit was with mridangam player Gaurish Chandrashekhar at his house in South Grafton.

Gaurish Chandrashekhar teaching mridangum. Photo by Jennifer Atwood.

We all crammed into a small room with Gaurish and his apprentice Kaasinath Balagurunath in the middle, and Kaasinath’s dad scrunched in the corner filming on his iPhone. Having grown up with Western classical and oldtime music, I expected the lesson to start similarly, that is, with a warm-up. However, as soon as Kaasinath sat down for the lesson, they started at full speed, right where they left off at the last week: how to subdivide a 10-beat phrase into a 16-beat cycle. The lesson kept a very fast pace, with Gaurish having Kaasinath figure out multiple ways to put the 10-beats into the sixteen.

Gaurish and Kaasinath

Towards the end of the lesson, we were free to ask questions.  I led the interview, but Maggie’s last question got the most powerful answer. She asked Gaurish what role music played in his life, to which he responded, “People have immigrated from India and here and now they are Americans. . . your heritage, your culture, the grass, the roots are somewhere else. Right? So how do you keep that connection going? So a natural aspect is music or dance or food, right? Those are the three things that we have. Or clothes, obviously. So music has become a very significant part of it, and dance even more so, because it tells a story.  So you have to learn about the stories. . .  so you can bring out the correct expression. The same thing with musical instruments. You’re lyrically expressing what happened at a period of time . . . You’re not just presenting what is taught you.”

Hearing Gaurish say this made me think about all of the kids learning western classical music in schools. How do they connect with the story and history of that music? Or do they at all? At 13, Kaasinath is not only learning music, but a whole history. When I was learning western classical music at that age, no one stressed the importance of the history and culture of the music we were playing. As a result, I wasn’t interested in where it came from or why it was played. So where did the importance of history and culture go in western music education?

Tara Bangalore (right) and Pratik Bharadwaj. Photo by Jennifer Atwood.

Our next site visit was with Tara Bangalore and her vocal apprentice Pratik Bharadwaj. Tara also teaches Carnatic violin, so Maggie and I (both fiddlers) came an hour early to get an introduction to Carnatic violin playing. Although Maggie and I both have a lot of training in other musical traditions, we were complete beginners with Tara. During Pratik’s lesson, Tara taught him the beginning of a new piece by ear, going over it phrase by phrase, and then had him perform a pallavi for us. Pallavi is one of the most complex song performances in Carnatic music as it features several different ways of improvising, from alapane, a slow improvised section, to tanam a rhythmic improvised section, to pallavi, a melodic refrain that has extremely complex improvisation rules. Pratik went through each section, only hesitating once during the pallavi, which he learned at the last lesson.

After the lesson, we asked Tara and Pratik some questions and Tara said many things that could apply to any musician, but one thing she said particularly jumped out at me as something a student in any area should consider. “When you’re. . . building yourself into a musician, you have to pay attention to balance. Is your music balanced? Is it too stormy? Does it have enough melody? Does it have all [the] technical stuff?”

“There’s a lot of music out there in the world today, a lot of interpretations, a lot of brilliance, no question, but sometimes in the middle of all that, the simple melody, the simple music that made Carnatic music what it was, that gave it the classicism, it  always runs the danger of slipping out somewhere.”

Maggie and Tati  working on a sound file. Photo by Artsake

So where am I going with all of this? As a musician, this work is eye-opening and inspiring. As a human being, it teaches you about other human beings and the world we live in. Having the chance to go out into the world and learn about people and the art they make and why they do it, it teaches you so much more than just the how or why. It gets you questioning deeper into your own music, your own life, your own culture, and your own story.

Six New Apprenticeships Funded by MCC

We are delighted to announce this year’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. The following six traditional art forms will be taught by master artists to their apprentices: Irish uilleann pipe playing, South Indian carnatic singing, sign painting and gold leaf, ornamental and architectural wood carving, North Indian Madhubani painting, and South Indian carnatic drumming.

Irish uilleann pipe playing: Joey Abarta, master artist and Caroline O’Shea, apprentice

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South Indian carnatic singing: Tara Anand Bangalore, master artist and Pratik Bharadwaj, apprentice

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Sign painting and gold leaf: Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs, master artist and Corinna D’Schoto, apprentice

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Ornamental and architectural wood carving: Dimitrios Klitsas, master artist and Spiro Klitsas, apprentice

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North Indian Madhubani painting: Sunanda Sahay, master artist and Sanjana Krishna, apprentice

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South Indian carnatic drumming on mridangam: Gaurishankar Chandrashankar, master artist and Kaasinath Balagurunath, apprentice

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Apprenticeships are a long-standing method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Applicants were reviewed by a panel of experts who evaluated the artistry of the master artist, skill level of the apprentice, rarity of art form, significance of the tradition,  appropriateness of the pairing, and work plan. Grantees are expected to offer a community presentation at the end of their 9-month long apprenticeship.

To see a list of all MCC-funded apprenticeships since 2002, click here.

Learn from a Master Artist

Qianshen Bai lifting seal

The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program offers a unique opportunity to learn first hand from a master traditional artist through its Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.  Apprenticeships are awarded every other year to a limited number of master artists. Priority is given to rare or endangered traditions. If you are interested in applying, please take a look at the program guidelines before contacting program manager, Maggie Holtzberg.

Pictured here are just a few of the apprenticeships that have been funded since the program was established in 2001.

David Hawthorne teaching bowmaking to Joel Pautz

Yary Livan and Samnang Khoen

Estefany Navarro and Sixto "Tito" Ayala on congas

Sekou and Balla Kouyate playing balafons

Chris Pereji and Nisha Purushotham

Kieran Jordan and Emerald Rae Forman Samnang Hor andSopaul Hem Cambodian dance

 

Learning Chinese calligraphy from a master

Qianshen Bai is a demanding teacher.  Leaning over his apprentice’s brush work, he points out tiny things, “This  is the problem. Her problem here is that here, so far so good, and she move this way, see the brush toward this part? The stroke should keep in the same direction. You see? You need to use finger and wrist. . . This kind of work is an illusion. The trick is, where this stroke came from, because calligraphy is art of movement.”

Although there are still quite a few people who practice calligraphy for leisure, very few take the time to study, in depth, the history and various aspects of the art of writing calligraphy. Mei Hung, Executive Director of Chinese Culture Connection, is one of those people.  In September 2013, Qianshen Bai and Mei Hung were awarded a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In addition to learning the subtleties of the techniques in writing balanced and artistic calligraphy, Mei Hung learned to appreciate a piece of good work with a critical eye. During their 8-month apprenticeship, Mei was introduced to writing couplets, horizontal banners, and, in a smaller font, on fan shaped calligraphy. In addition to learning how to compose the writing in various styles, she completed the composition with date and signature, and the proper way to apply the seal.

For Mei Hung, having had such a direct experience with master calligrapher Qianshen Bai has been a privilige.  “Now I understand that the art of writing calligraphy can be related to playing music, practicing Tai Ji . . .To do it well is a total harmonious relationship among one’s intent, the brush, the ink and the paper. Professor Bai described it this way: the “brush dances and the ink sings.”

This apprenticeship enhanced my knowledge of the art and improved my writing skills, but most importantly, it made me feel humble. It is truly an art that requires a life long practice.” Perhaps, most importantly, Mei mastered a method of how to learn calligraphy by herself in the future.

The next deadline for Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants is April 2014.

 

All in the Family: Learning from Master Musicians

It’s that time of year when the MCC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeships are wrapping up for the year. As part of the grant program, recipients are required to share what they have learned in a public presentation. This coming Sunday, May 19th, two master/apprentice teams will perform musical selections and share some of the joys and challenges of transmitting musical heritage. The free presentation takes place at Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center theater, 246 Market Street and will begin at 2:30 p.m.

Two continents. Two ancient percussive traditions. And two young people with the good fortune to be born into musical familes headed by master musicians. Balla Kouyaté is a virtuoso player of the balafon, the ancient West African ancester of the xylophone and marimba. Above, you see him teaching his son Sekou the balafon.

Sixto “Tito” Ayala comes from a legendary music and dance institution in Puerto Rico – the Ayala family. He is pictured here teaching a conga rhythm to his daughter Estefany Navarro.

Come see and hear how West African djeli music and Puerto Rican bomba & plena are being passed on from one generation to the next.

 

 

 

 

Bowmaking Apprenticeship

Bowmaker David Hawthorne has been making bows for stringed instruments for over 30 years.  This past September, he was awarded an MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship  to pass on some of the knowledge he has acquired to Joel Pautz. A woodworker, Joel has studied violin making at the North Bennett Street School. Just before Christmas, I scheduled a visit see how their apprenticeship was progressing.

The 3rd-floor bowmaking workshop is smack in the center of Harvard Square, [just across the hall from Dewey Cheetham & Howe, the Car Talk guys!]. An outer office greets customers; beyond are two workshop spaces full of all sorts of bows in various stages of completion and numerous hand-made tools specific to the trade.

The focus of the apprenticeship is on a French style of bowmaking in the tradition of Dominique Peccatte. “Bowmaking,” David shares, as he gets settled at the workbench, “is a French-influenced pursuit because the French bowmakers were kind of the best.”  David learned from a bowmaker who had studied in France, and then went to France himself to study bowmaking.

The bow Joel is currently working on is based on a model, the original of which is housed in the Powerhouse Museum in Austria. More simple than a modern bow, this baroque bow has a “clip-in” frog. Making a baroque style frog has the advantage of introducing the apprentice to many of the techniques of bowmaking, while modern bows demand skills and techniques beyond woodworking. For example, their screw-adjusted frogs require metalwork, jeweler’s techniques, and inlay.

Clip-in frog
Screw-adjusted frog

David picks up one of two similar sticks from off the workbench.  “We started with a stick. I saw this out at home on my bandsaw. You can see it’s kind of rough looking. And this one I’ve planed a certain amount . . . Joel has done that on a couple of his bows.”

What will follow are the many steps of planing the stick straight, carving the head, heating and bending the stick, and making and fitting the frog of the bow which holds one end of the horse hair.

David decides to demonstrate cutting a mortise, which is basically the hole where the horse hair will go. He speaks slowly, as he is working, “This is the drill we use, the French foret (click to view video) . . . So I’m going to make two holes and then I’m going to carve it out straight. And that’s just my depth stop, that piece of tape. That’s what we were discussing, how deep to make it. Obviously, you can’t make it too deep because it will make a hole through the bow. But you have to make it deep enough to accommodate the amount of hair you want to put in. So you kind of make it as deep as you dare.”

Making a bow demands superb woodworking skills and a keen eye, but how, I wonder, does one learn how to get the sound you want out of a stick of wood? Turns out the most obvious thing affecting the sound is the particular wood out of which each individual bow is made. David adds that the combination of violin and bow will always have to be matched. Being a violin player myself, I’ve noticed how the same instrument can sound so very different when played with a different bow. “Different bows will sound either brighter or darker or warmer or crisper, ” David says, which prompts me to ask, “Is that something you can set out to do?”

His answer is yes, but what he’s really after is great sound. “In general, a very flexible bow has a bigger, warmer sound. I’m interested in the best sound for a bow so I’m looking for a certain kind of flexibility, which can either be a function of the wood — is this wood strong? If it’s strong, did I maximize strength in the way I constructed it?  Which is both a function of the thickness and the taper of the stick, and how you’ve curved it in the end. The camber.

What’s a good tone quality? Well, you don’t want it to sound nasal. You don’t want it to sound strident. You don’t want it to sound tood piercing. But, on the onther hand, you want it to have a certain openess of sound and you want it to have a certain beauty of sound.”

Joel is listening and watching and taking it all in.

An apprentice strikes out on his own

 

Jesse Marsolais has spent the last six years working alongside master letterpress printer John Kristensen at Firefly Press. In 2009, the two were awarded an MCC-funded Traditional Arts Apprenticeship to work specifically on Jesse learning to use and maintain 19th-century Linotype and Monotype typecasting machines.

This past June, Jesse also had the rare opportunity to apprentice under master carver Nick Benson at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island.  The latter apprenticeship (letter carving in stone) was supported by a  Southern New England Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, a unique program administered by Lynne Williamson which funds master artists and apprentices to work together across state lines in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  The latter grant culminated in an open house this past June at the John Stevens Shop (JSS), which Jesse writes about in his own blog post.

Jesse’s nascent skills in letter carving are valued at the JSS, and he continutes to do occasional jobs for them when needed.  If it weren’t for the fact that Jesse just opened his own printing and stone carving business in Millbury, MA, he might very well have been offered full time work in Newport.

Marsolais Press & Lettercarving, Inc.  is located in a free-standing brick building which once housed a textile mill.

Jesse shares the space with blacksmith Derek Heidemann, who began learning his craft at age 14 at Old Sturbridge Village. “When I found out about the space I was really intrigued by the presence of a traditional blacksmith,” Jesse said. “Derek works for Old Sturbridge Village by day but then comes here and does his own things at night.”

Derek happened to be at the shop on the day I visited. His work at the forge gave the space a wonderful smell of burning coal and red hot iron, and the occasional clinking sounds of metal on metal.

 

Jesse offered this: “To be able to work in a space that has another traditional craftsman  is really exciting and generative for me because it keeps the space alive with making. We’re vying for the same sensibility – for people that actually want the traditional process, the traditional level of quality.”

Jesse’s half of the work space is home to his newly acquired Chandler & Price Press, a 400-pound Miller saw, some type cases, a galley cabinet, his grandfather’s engineering drafting table, and a collection of typography and printing books. I ask him to talk about how the allied trades of letterpress printing and stone carving relate.

“For me, it seems like a really obvious bridge. [They are] two very related fields.” A self-proclaimed antiquarian, Jesse naturally has pursued learning more about the history and tradition of typography. “I think the more I researched and the farther back I went, the more I realized the debt modern typography owes to traditional Roman letterforms. Brush-driven letterforms.  Obviously, these are two totally different methods of typographic or lettering reproduction but there is a continuum that’s very much alive in the over-arching tradition.”

There, lying on the drafting table was proof. A slate slab beautifully carved with a Roman alphabet – the letters chiseled in V-cut against the buttery smooth dark slate.

Nearby, was a large beach stone, looking to weigh some 50 pounds. Jesse had begun to design lettering of my father’s name for a memorial stone I’d commissioned. I asked him to talk about finding this particular stone. “Because I was able to learn a little bit about your father, I had some personal information at hand. . .  Searching for a stone can be a fairly emotional and moving moment. . . I knew he was a man of science. It was important to me to find a stone that I thought I could carve.”

“This stone has a purplish hue and it has these beautiful bands of what looks like quartz and some darker stone. I look at this and I just think pressure and time. There’s a fluidity to it. There’s a flow inherent in the surface of the stone. So there’s this play of solid and liquid.”

 Jesse’s shop will be easier to find once Jesse finishes his sign for the exterior of the building.

Two days later, I went to meet Jesse at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island.  The shop has been in operation since 1705; walk inside and history speaks. Beautiful letterforms are everywhere you look.  Jesse greeted me and showed me the piece he wass working on – an impression of a cancelled stamp, carved in white marble. I met Paul Russo, who was chipping away on a slate memorial, carving daffodils in relief. Nearby was a huge piece in progress for Yale University, acknowledging benefactors for their contributions to art, and a number of gravestones in various stages of completion.

Jesse shares with me that he couldn’t imagine better guys to work with and learn from. “They’ve been incredibly generous, not at all guarded with the secrets of the trade.”

As a folklorist working in the public sector, it is gratifying to help support a young man with skills and passion seek out mentors willing to pass on their knowledge in hand-wrought craftsmanship and receive priceless, one-on-one guidance. It is also affirming to see that a small investment of public money in the arts can play a part in growing small business developtment, while preserving age-old New England crafts.

Learning to carve letters in stone

We first came to know Jesse Marsolais as an apprentice to letterpress printer John Kristensen. An old soul, Jesse has embraced the black art of printmaking and brings new life to the craft. So we were not surprised to learn that Jesse has the rare opportunity to apprentice under third generation stone carver, calligrapher, and designer   Nick Benson  at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island. Lucky for us, Jesse is  blogging about his experience, “Six Weeks in the John Stevens Shop.” We suggest you give it a read.

Jesse’s six-week apprenticeship is funded by the Southern New England Folk & Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.  This unique tri-state apprenticeship program allows apprentices to work with master artists across state lines in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The next deadline is October 4, 2012.

Apprenticeship Grants Available

Are you interested in applying for a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council? Applications are now available.

Recent apprenticeships funded by MCC’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program include Puerto Rican musical instrument making, Irish fiddling, Cambodian kbach (basic element of design), Irish stepdancing, bladesmithing, and Puerto Rican dollmaking, to name a few. Check them out.

Promising young apprentice performs locally and abroad

It’s nice to see a mentoring situation continue after the formal Traditional Arts Apprenticeship has ended. Irish fiddler Laurel Martin was awarded an apprenticeship in September 2010 to work with home-schooled teen, Natayla Kay Trudeau. Beyond the learning of new tunes, special emphasis was put on gaining an understanding of the older regional fiddle styles associated with County Clare — a style Martin herself was taught by acclaimed Clare-born fiddler Seamus Connolly, in an apprenticeship more than 20 years ago. Trudeau also learned about fiddlers who were also known for their compositions, including tunesmiths Junior Crehan, Paddy O’Brien, Sean Ryan, and Ed Reavey.

By June 2011, Trudeau’s progress was audible; not only had she gained respect for the authenticity of regional fiddle styles, but her technique, musicality, and presence on stage were surprising for one so young. The two took part in a  Lowell Folklife Series concert back in June at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Their music enlivened the stepdancing of  Kieran Jordan and Kevin Doyle, along with their respective apprentices, Emerald Rae and Nicole Leblanc.

And though the formal MCC-funded apprenticeship with Laurel ended in June, Trudeau’s education as a budding musician has just begun. She will perform on December 12 at the Westford Museum  and will join Martin on stage at Club Passim (also on December 12) and the Java Room Coffee House in Chelmsford (February 11). Soon after, Martin and Trudeau are headed to Ireland for a week of seisuns, performances, and ceilidhs — a veritable immersion in the world of Irish fiddling. Lucky girl.