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NJ State Council on the Arts
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From Cape May to The Palisades, New Jersey is home to diverse communities with traditional folk arts, shaped by the aesthetics and values of the cultures they represent. The State Arts Council is committed to supporting the artists at the heart of these communities, working to pass distinctive art forms from one generation to the next, and preserve their cultural legacy.
 
Each year the New Jersey State Council on the Arts awards Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grants to help Apprentice artists hone their skills under the guidance of a Master artist in the same craft. Here we shine a light on their work: from them, to us, to you, we are "Passing It On".

The Irish Tin Whistle
Learning the Music Through an Aural Tradition

 
Master Traditional Irish Flute and Tin Whistle Player, Lesl Harker works with her Apprentice, John Emerich.
 
Meet Lesl Harker and John Emerich

John Emerich, an avid lover of traditional Irish music and culture, had wanted to learn to play Irish songs for many years when he introduced himself to Lesl Harker, a long time participant of the State Arts Council's Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and Master Irish Flutist. He was so hungry to be able to play with other musicians and friends who knew the music, and wanted to be sure to find trustworthy instruction. "I know the culture, I know the tradition," he said to Lesl, "but I'm a beginner. Do you take beginners?" Three years later the two have formed a sturdy Master - Apprentice relationship, and according to Lesl, John is "a very good apprentice". 

Traditional Irish music is learned by playing with those who have developed the skills of ancestors. It is not a written tradition, it is an aural one. And so, John and Lesl sit and play joyfully together, listening closely to each other, but in Lesl's case, also to the memory of the sounds of her master playing the tunes that have been passed on from generation to generation. Coincidentally, this partnership has a unique twist. Years ago, Lesl first came to the Council's program as an Apprentice, by way of her esteemed Master, Mike Rafferty, whom she had studied with for 13 years. After Mike's passing, Lesl was encouraged to continue on as Master, and she attributes her success in the program, in part, to the help of the Council's Folk Arts Coordinator, Kim Nguyen. "It is because of Kim's support that I came into this program and have been part of it for so long". So it goes now that Lesl is engaging in the time-honored task of passing the tradition on, as she had it passed on to her, and John couldn't be more thrilled to be a participant in such a rich tradition.
 
Q & A with the Master

Can you provide an historical context for this particular traditional art form, and how you came to study it?

LESL:
The regional style of music that I play and teach is known as the "East Galway Style", and comes from East County Galway in Ireland. I came to learn it specifically via the late (d. 2011) National Heritage Fellow, Mike Rafferty of East County Galway. He learned it from his father, Tom Barrel Rafferty of Ballinakill. Mike Rafferty immigrated to America in 1949, and brought the Galway music with him. He became a renowned teacher and performer, who was highly celebrated both here and in Ireland. By the 1950's all of Irish music was in danger of being lost, but with the advent of mass communication, newer musicians began to combine styles, and Irish music began to sound more homogenized. So today, we have Mike's Galway style disappearing, and now many of the old timers Mike used to play with have passed away. So I have made it a mission of mine to pass along Mike's music, the way it is meant to be played, by teaching it directly. I studied with him for 13 years and was his New Jersey State Arts Apprentice twice. He became like a second father to me, and also showed me how to teach the music.
 
Talk about the instrument. Describe the tin whistle for us.
LESL: A tin whistle is a tube with 6 finger holes and a mouthpiece for blowing into. It's a simple instrument which can be played by children and beginners as well as by virtuoso players. Played well it has a sweet sound with a lot of feeling in it. It's also quite handy as, being small, you can easily carry it around!

How has this art form been significant in your own life?
LESL: The music itself makes you want to play it more and more. It is one of the most important things in my life, and is my connection to a large network of like-minded musician friends. Teaching and playing the music for and with others is an extension of this. It is my livelihood.

If you could describe your philosophy of teaching in one sentence, what would it be?
LESL: I teach from the framework of - it's about the music and not the musician, paying homage to the tradition and those who have played the music before you.

Why did you choose to work with John as an Apprentice?
LESL: John has an outstanding work ethic. He is so dedicated. Three years ago he was unable to even cover the holes on the whistle, and had no understanding of written music notation. Now he has learned to play quite a number of pieces by ear alone and can read notation for reference. This is outstanding. He knows that learning the music is a journey more than a destination, and he has remarkably great patience with this. His progress thus far is very promising.

Q & A with the Apprentice

What is your connection with Irish culture? What draws you to the traditional music?
JOHN: I have an Irish background and I have attended many Irish musical lessons, both here and in Ireland. I love the music and the community it creates. New Jersey has a very active Irish music scene. Everyone knows each other, they're all somehow connected. When I hear or play the music and see people smiling and tapping their feet, it is the best of feelings. That feeling transcends language and culture to reach the core of our humanity.
 
Describe studying as Lesl's Apprentice and what are your goals?
JOHN: Before this Apprenticeship I studied with Lesl for 3 years. She knows my musical strengths and weaknesses better than any instructor. She brings an authenticity to the music that others just cannot bring. When we sit to play I sometimes think, 'Oh, that's great! It's all worth the effort when it comes out right, it's so fun'. My hope it to become recognized as a true practitioner of the East Galway style of playing. I also want to become an example to others, by showing them that learning to play an instrument is possible, and that creating music as an active participant brings a joy to life.

What is the significance of your participation in this tradition and this program?
JOHN: Being an Apprentice brings the seriousness to it. I feel like I've joined the lineage of the people in the tradition. I feel a responsibility to learn this. I'm now a part of the heritage - like the people who played out on the farm gathering together after a hard day's work. It's so satisfying.

Apprentice, Angela Jung
Lesl and John play together, listening intently as they play, at Lesl's home music studio.

Have a Listen to Master Irish Flute Player, Lesl Harker
Angela Jung performs Moorestown, NJ 
Lesl plays slow hornpipe and reel handed down to Mike Rafferty from his father Tom Barrel Rafferty who had them from the blind piper Dinny Delaney of Ballinasloe.


The title for this publication was inspired by Rita Moonsammy's book entitled,
Passing it On, Folk Artists and Education in Cumberland County, New Jersey, published in 1992.

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The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, created in 1966, is a division of the NJ Department of State. The Council was established to encourage and foster public interest in the arts; enlarge public and private resources devoted to the arts; promote freedom of expression in the arts; and facilitate the inclusion of art in every public building in New Jersey. The Council receives direct appropriations from the State of New Jersey through a dedicated, renewable Hotel/Motel Occupancy fee, as well as competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. To learn more about the Council, please visit 
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