Only at CBU

Tra­di­tional mu­sic pro­gram draws stu­dents from around the world

Cape Breton Post - - Front Page - BY NIKKI SUL­LI­VAN

What started as a few fid­dle classes at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity is now a full-blown un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in tra­di­tional mu­sic, and it’s the only one in Canada.

The pro­gram is at­tract­ing stu­dents from around the world.

“I don’t know if there’s any bet­ter place in the world than Cape Bre­ton to do tra­di­tional mu­sic be­cause it is liv­ing all around us,” said Dr. Heather Spar­ling, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of ethno-mu­si­cal­ity at the univer­sity.

Spar­ling, a Toronto na­tive and the Canada re­search chair in mu­si­cal tra­di­tions, de­vel­oped the pro­gram that launched in 2013.

It in­cludes courses in per­for­mance, artist man­age­ment, fes­ti­vals and the mu­sic in­dus­try. The tra­di­tional mu­sic the­ory course is one Spar­ling is es­pe­cially proud of.

“Mu­sic the­ory is a com­po­nent that is re­quired in most mu­sic pro­grams, but it’s al­most al­ways go­ing to be clas­si­cal mu­sic the­ory,” she ex­plained.

“Maybe you’ll get jazz mu­sic the­ory or pop mu­sic the­ory, but tra­di­tional mu­sic the­ory? Uhuh.”

The de­gree in tra­di­tional mu­sic is a bach­e­lor of arts ma­jor­ing in mu­sic, not a bach­e­lor of mu­sic, which is per­for­mance in­ten­sive.

“Ours is more of an aca­demic study of mu­sic. So we have per­for­mance, we have some of those pieces, but they aren’t as cen­tral and they’re not as em­pha­sized,” Spar­ling said.

Tra­di­tional mu­sic cov­ered in­ten­sively in­cludes Celtic, Mi’kmaw and Aca­dian. There are also courses that broadly cover tra­di­tional mu­sic from dif­fer­ent parts of the world.

“The pro­gram is de­signed for peo­ple who are re­ally in­ter­ested in a mu­si­cal ca­reer, but maybe not as per­form­ers or as school teach­ers,” said Spar­ling.

“We want to make sure we’re not just at­tract­ing fid­dlers and pipers. We’re re­ally in­ter­ested in stu­dents who are in­ter­ested in tra­di­tional mu­sic who may not play one of those tra­di­tional in­stru­ments.”

Stu­dents have to do two co-op place­ments. Or­ga­ni­za­tions like Celtic Colours, the Gaelic Col­lege and the Beaton In­sti­tute are a few of­fer­ing them.

There is also an ex­change pro­gram with four over­seas post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions: the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick in Ire­land, the Royal Con­ser­va­toire of Scot­land, the Univer­sity of New­cas­tle in Eng­land and the Sab­hal Mòr Os­taig on the Isle of Skye in Scot­land. Th­ese ex­changes are for one term or a full-year.

Robyn Ada McKay, a bag­pipe and whis­tle player, is do­ing a one-term ex­change from the Royal Con­ser­va­toire of Scot­land. She de­cided to do it af­ter com­ing to play Celtic Colours in 2016 with Phil Cun­ning­ham.

“I had heard the term ‘Cape Bre­ton style’ for many years back in Scot­land but didn’t fully un­der­stand what it in­cluded and how to go about im­i­tat­ing the style to per­form/in­te­grate into my on per­for­mance reper­toire,” said the mu­si­cian who also writes mu­sic.

“I think the pro­gram is bril­liant. It cer­tainly of­fers a di­verse range of sub­jects.”

Spar­ling thinks one of the strengths of the CBU pro­gram is the com­mu­nity con­nec­tion. They hire lo­cal mu­si­cians to teach and stu­dents get to con­nect with the cul­ture of tra­di­tional mu­sic in Cape Bre­ton.

“We went to the Blue Mist Ses­sion in Bras d’Or and Brenda Stub­bert was there. And ev­ery­body knows this tune, ‘Brenda Stub­bert’s Reel,’” Spar­ling said.

The stu­dents gasped with ex­cite­ment at see­ing the fid­dler, pi­anist, and com­poser live.

“The joy of com­ing here is that th­ese peo­ple who are heroes and icons in the tra­di­tional mu­sic world are avail­able and you can meet them, you can play with them and you can in­ter­act with them in the com­mu­nity.”

For the first time, Celtic Colours is spon­sor­ing a $1,500 en­trance schol­ar­ship to the pro­gram for the 2018-19 school year.

“Stu­dents from this pro­gram will be well po­si­tioned to work in the arts and cul­tural sec­tor, sup­port­ing the work of Celtic Colours and other or­ga­ni­za­tions,” said Mike Mac­Sween, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, in a writ­ten state­ment.

For more in­for­ma­tion on the schol­ar­ship or to ap­ply go to­tranceaward/.

More in­for­ma­tion on the un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in tra­di­tional mu­sic can be found at


Dr. Heather Spar­ling sits in the record­ing stu­dio at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity. It is one of the fa­cil­i­ties stu­dents in the tra­di­tional mu­sic pro­gram get to use.


Robyn Ada McKay is study­ing at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity in the tra­di­tional mu­sic pro­gram as part of an ex­change pro­gram from the Royal Con­ser­va­toire of Scot­land.

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