Maryland State Arts Council grants apprenticeship award to preserve traditional music skills

The music of the southern Appalachians and unique instruments of the folk tradition have been passed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition. To help preserve this music in a world of electronic instrumentation and an explosion of diversity of genres, the Maryland State Arts Council has enlisted Common Ground on the Hill founder Walt Michael to take on an apprentice, in an effort to pass down the knowledge he has accrued over a lifetime to friend and coworker Robert Caswell.

In April, Michael and Caswell were awarded a Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. Starting in July and extending over a yearlong period, Michael will train Caswell in the hammered dulcimer, teaching him the dance music of Scottish, Irish, southern Appalachian and New England traditions as Caswell constructs his own replica of Michael’s instrument.

Michael and Caswell are one of seven pairs of winners of the apprenticeship awards, with fellow winners learning oystermen skills, traditional Korean drumming rhythms, and Beijing opera dance and acting techniques.

The $2,000 grant provides time and funding for Michael to train Caswell weekly in his own specific phrasing and techniques on the hammered dulcimer as well as help him construct his own instrument. Throughout the year, Arts Council members will check up on the duo to see Caswell’s progress, and at the end of the year, the two will play at a special performance to show off all that they’ve learned.

Michael said he’s long been aware of the apprenticeship grant, and decided to apply with Caswell for the first time this year.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Michael said. “It serves to keep traditions alive by having a ‘master’ teach an apprentice. It nurtures these traditions in our communities.” He said the apprentice relationship is a way to help preserve these forms of music.

“These oral traditions are always passed down one generation to the next,” Michael said. “I learned from someone in a similar way. As Pete Seeger says, we’re all just links in the chain.”

Caswell said he’s always been interested in music, but his passion for folk traditions started to form as he entered college and moved away from rock ‘n’ roll and toward acoustic music. “What we’re doing makes me feel really proud,” Caswell said. “The very nature of this kind of music is handed down from one generation to the next. It’s a fitting model for us and for the other recipients of the grant.”

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