Blog: National Youth
Folk Ensemble

Flute player Grainne Lacy-Roberts and fiddler Daniel Horne talk about their love of the folk world as they get set to play Cambridge Folk Festival

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The National Youth Folk Ensemble was founded in 2016 by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, with funding from Arts Council England. Young musicians from all over England are selected annually to join the Ensemble. They meet four times a year for intensive residential courses and perform around England. Flute player Grainne Lacy-Roberts, 15, and fiddler Daniel Horne, 17, both from the north of England, talk about how they came to be involved with the Ensemble as they pack up their instruments and head south to the Cambridge Folk Festival.

Grainne: Growing up, there was always folk music around me. I’d either be listening to Altan, an Irish folk band, in the house, or falling asleep in a folk music session with my mum playing next to me. Before I even picked up an instrument I’d be constantly humming a jig or a reel, so transferring this onto a flute came naturally.

Daniel: I was about six or seven when folk music first came into my life. My parents weren’t particularly into it. Actually, maybe that’s why I latched on to traditional folk music – something that my parents couldn’t really have much of an understanding of! My dad says it’s much better than me being a death metal drummer, though. Apparently.

Grainne: When I was nine, I was a member of Leeds Comhaltas, a group which promotes Irish culture and music. I entered my first Fleadh then,  which is a series of three competitions, finishing in Ireland with a buzz of music and people. The streets are packed. The following year, I began playing in a trio with two fiddle players, Roísín and Eabha. We instantly became close friends and we went on to win the Fleadh’s all-Britain award three times.

In 2016 Roísín and I played and gave workshops to primary school children in South Africa with another youth folk group, Roots Alive. The experience of exploring a new culture piqued my interest in how cool folk music can be, so when I heard about the National Youth Folk Ensemble I couldn’t wait to audition.

Roísín and I have now formed a new trio with fiddle player Owen Spafford, who is also in the National Youth Folk Ensemble. We combine our shared experience in folk, as well as Roísín’s in classical music, to experiment more with the sound we create.

Daniel: I’ve been lucky to find a genre that I really enjoy at quite an early age. It seems a lot of people have to go on some kind of journey to discover folk for themselves and decipher it, whereas for me it was just there from the start. In fact it very much was the start!

One of the things that keeps me interested in the music is the combination of old and new, and this idea of traditions coming alive: either tunes written recently in the style of older tunes, or old tunes found in hundred-year-old collections. The genre has so many styles, often for individual towns or counties, as well as nationally and internationally. But what I think makes folk most wonderful is the changing and re-inventing of those tunes, dances and traditions – keeping them alive and “taking them off the page”, in the words of Rob Harbron, one of the Ensemble’s wonderful tutors.

Grainne: The National Youth Folk Ensemble sampler days and auditions themselves were great opportunities to meet other young folk musicians and receive workshops from the tutors. I’d recommend any young musician to go to a sampler day when they’re next on, even if you don’t expect to get into the Ensemble. I was ecstatic when I heard that I’d been accepted and honestly I still am.

I’ve seen my musicality and standard drastically improve in the Ensemble, not to mention the number of truly wonderful musicians I can now call my friends. Every residential I learn so much new. I was lucky enough to celebrate my birthday at the National Youth Folk Ensemble in October. They held a suprise party and bought me a cake, which has to be one of my favourite memories.

Daniel: It’s the people involved and the passion of those people that make folk music great, and the interconnected-ness of the folk world is astounding – just big enough to still be meeting people and finding new musicians and styles, but just small enough to know, or at least know of, everyone, often as friends.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a more friendly or lovely group of tutors, band members and pastoral staff. That’s what is so stellar about it: lovely people playing together to bring back old tunes and create new ones.

Grainne: It won’t be long until we’re playing on the main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival. I’m a bit nervous, although I’m confident that I will enjoy playing with the group, as I always do.

Daniel: I’m really excited to play at Cambridge, and Sidmouth a few days later. I think – no, I know – that the whole band feels the same, particularly after all the practice we’ve put in.

Grainne and Daniel, and the rest of the National Youth Folk Ensemble, will play the main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday 3 August

Main photo: Camilla Greenwell

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