Only at CBU
Traditional music program draws students from around the world
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 to https://celtic-colours.com/entranceaward/.
More information on the undergraduate degree in traditional music can be found at www.cbu.ca.
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.