Teaching folk traditions in a changing world
The Folk Music Academy offers master classes in folk
The Norwegian American
Despite his easy and outwardly calm demeanor, Olav Luksengård Mjelva, one of Norway’s premier Hardanger fiddle players, is somehow always on the move. If he’s not recording or touring internationally with his “epic folk” band Sver, or the nyckelharpa/Hardingfele duo Rydvall/Mjelva, he’s starting a custom travel guide business (which had five U.S. tour groups booked when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the business was understandably sidelined).
Now, with a timeline coincidentally reminiscent of COVID-19’s, Mjelva and Swedish bandmate Jens Linnell have launched a remarkable new venture with deep cultural roots: The Folk Music Academy (www.thefolkmusicacademy.com).
The academy, which launched in July 2020, is a subscription-based online teaching center for folk music that has been in the making for a decade. Among its teachers, in addition to Mjelva, are some of the Nordic folk tradition’s biggest names, including Olov Johansson, master nyckelharpa player in the Swedish folk group Väsen, award-winning instrument-maker and Hardanger fiddle virtuoso Ottar Kåsa from Bø i Telemark, and Swedish fiddler Lena Jonsson, whose audiences have included President Barack Obama and climate activist Greta Thunberg.
The teachers hail from four of the five Nordic countries, plus the Shetland Islands, with plans to expand offerings in Irish, Scottish, and American bluegrass and old-time traditions. So far, the instruments in the course listings include fiddle, Hardanger fiddle, nyckelharpa, cittern, kantele, tambourine, and the two-row button accordion.
The idea for the academy began with Mjelva, who, in trying to find decent guitar lessons online, was stymied to find very little of value. “I could only find a couple pages with just a little on American bluegrass, but otherwise, there was extremely little. So I thought, OK, this is actually a good idea.” There are plenty of single videos on YouTube, he noted, but no place with a series or collection of lessons. “So there is really a pedagogical thought behind it for us,” he said.
When he brought up the idea with bandmate Linnell, who has an abiding interest in video editing, it was a fortuitous match. “We started to work on the idea three or four years ago, but it died out until last year, when we finally said, ‘Now we’re going to do it.’” They applied for startup funding from the Arts Council of Norway among other organizations and began to film in December 2019—with thoughts of COVID-19 just beyond the horizon.
Another fortunate encounter with a Dutch web developer and folk musician who had been thinking along the same lines completed the team: web guru, film editor, and entrepreneur, folk musicians all.
As the coronavirus began to spread and borders began to close, bringing teachers to the studio in Os near Røros became a challenge. And yet, with so many people across the world looking for ways to enrich—or cope with—the isolation that the pandemic foisted on us all, the idea of an online folk music academy with some of the giants in folk gained some extra purchase.
And the teachers, too, COVID-19 notwithstanding, have been extraordinarily positive toward the endeavor. “Here in the Nordic region, we have got a ‘yes’ from everyone we’ve asked. Olov Johansson of Väsen was one of the very first who said yes, and that meant a whole lot to us,” Mjelva said. “We only wanted to have the best, and now we’ve got the best.”
And it’s not only the gap opened by the pandemic that the Folk Music Academy can fill. Several schools, including the Ole Bull Academy in Voss, have opened institutional subscriptions so their students each get their own account.
In a place like Rauland, where the University of South-Eastern Norway offers its folk music program, there are just a few teachers focusing on fiddle and Hardanger fiddle, while the students there are interested in learning other areas as well. “So we can provide them that chance,” Mjelva said.
While the school doesn’t offer any official certificate or accreditation, a subscriber has access to all the content on the website, so, Mjelva said, “hopefully, we can keep adding content so that you’re never really finished.”
As the school grows, to supplement the pre-recorded video tutorials and performances, they are also offering more interactive Zoom workshops, where students can meet teachers and musicians in another way, ask questions, and get a little more of the “traditional” model of instruction. “The thought is that it can be a kind of folk music society on the internet,” said Mjelva. “We’re working on adding articles of all sorts of aspects of folk music, from history to contemporary trends, instrument maintenance, authenticity in Nordic folk music, and the like.”
That deep element of folk music—where master musicians pass down the tradition to the next generation—is something that the Folk Music Academy is very conscious of. Certainly there are skeptics: the extreme traditionalists who see online folk education as too modern or who believe you take something away when you’re not in person. “That is certainly not the thought here,” said Mjelva. “The in-person meeting will always be the most important, but this can be a complement. You won’t be completely educated in the Telemark tradition if you take our course with Ottar Kåsa, but you can nevertheless learn quite a lot. And you can learn right were you are, when you want.”
Moreover, Mjelva and his colleagues preserve a key part of that tradition: “All of us are folk musicians ourselves, and what we’ve learned, we’ve learned from other folk musicians. That’s the thought behind the whole teaching model: you should learn from other musicians as though you’re sitting in the same room, but here you can also have more camera angles, like right over a fiddler’s fingers.” These aren’t university professors teaching folk music in a theoretical setting, but active musicians themselves, playing folk music where it lives.
When we spoke over Zoom, I asked Mjelva who his most influential teacher was. “I’ve had quite a few teachers,” he said, “but the ones who were perhaps the most influential were those I had when I was quite young msyelf: Mary Barthelemy and Olav Nyhus” in Røros, where Mjelva grew up and is still based.
From what he described, the couple did more than teach fiddle lessons to local kids; as Mjelva puts it, they created “an environment around you so you’re never quite able to stop learning.” Mjelva was an early teenager at the time, and while he says he’s had teachers since then that he’s technically learned more from, it was Barthelemy and Nyhus who built the community that shaped his playing in the future.
In this digital age, in a pandemic, where the very idea of folk—people making music together in the same room—can seem so distant, the Folk Music Academy seeks to offer students a sense of that tradition, adapted to a rapidly changing world.
To learn more about The Folk Music Academy and the various membrership levels they offer, visit www.thefolkmusicacademy.com.
All photos courtesy of The Folk Music Academy.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.