Preserving Artistry Through Apprentices

It can take years for artists to master their craft. In Kentucky, a government-sponsored program works to ensure the artist’s knowledge is passed onto a younger generation. 

In a small studio in Lexington, master fiddler Daniel Carwile prepares for a lesson with a student first by tuning her instrument. They meet for 45 minutes once a week. At age 60, Karen Jones is not like most of Carwile’s students. She’s a retired lawyer and a member of two musical groups.

“I had some classical training as a child and then when I became a member of the Reel World String Band-- it’s an all-women string band-- we had a Clawhammer banjo player and she taught me a lot of fiddle tunes,” said Jones.

Several years ago Karen heard Daniel Carwile and his wife Amy playing a show and a local bookstore.

“And I thought, ‘Wow! There are some good fiddlers," said Jones.

Karen got hooked on fiddling, and started taking lessons with Amy. She’s now working with Daniel to prepare for fiddle contests under a program sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council.

“One thing we’re learning is contest style, which is basically, in my opinion, old time with lots of melodic variation,” says Carwile.

The Kentucky Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship is a grant program that pairs master artists with other artists or musicians in their community. The Arts Council awards participants $3,000 to spend a year learning with a local expert.

“You also get the behind-the-scenes, the traditions, the stories, what makes that tradition come to life,” says Mark Brown, a folklife specialist who helps oversee the program.

Besides musical art forms, the grant is also open to storytellers, dancers, and craft artists. Brown says the program’s goal goes beyond just preserving the local traditions.

“We accept that some things are going to same from generation to generation. But things are going to change with each new generation that learns. Each new artist that learns a tradition is going to add his or her own individual expression to that. And that’s what we’re really interested in studying, how traditions change,” said Brown.

Back at the studio, Daniel teaches Karen bowing techniques that will help her with fiddling, especially at contest events. But he doesn’t want students to lose sight of their own musical intuition.

“If I’m showing her a tune, let’s say ‘Billy in the Low Ground’ I’ll give her lots of variation from the past 100 years from lots of different people. The style has to continue to evolve. Every player should autograph and sign it with their own melodic ideas,” said Daniel.

With budget cuts becoming an annual fact of life for government agencies, the Kentucky Arts Council has seen many of its programs eliminated. The apprenticeship grant, however, is entering its 20th year and administrators are reviewing applications from artists across the state. 

Over the next few months teacher Daniel Carwile and apprentice Karen Jones will take their music out of the studio for fiddle contests and joint performances.