Folk education at Cecil Sharp House

Cecil Sharp House. Photo: David Castor
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a journalist specialising in training and education.
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The other day, at another venue, I picked up a brochure about Cecil Sharp House, the Camden Town headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. As always, the mere mention of it takes me back decades.

My parents Ken and Fay Hillyer were very active and enthusiastic EFDSS members and my father’s band, The Southerners, played regularly for Saturday night dances and for many other events, rehearsals and so on at Cecil Sharp House in the 1960s and 70s. It was always referred to as “The House” and cryptically written in my mother’s diary as C#H before the musical sharp sign morphed into a hash. In my teens and early adulthood I too took part in many activities at The House, including rehearsals under Nan Fleming-Williams for the annual EFDSS festival at Royal Albert Hall where I played fiddle alongside my father in the arena band.

Well all that was a long time ago and it’s interesting to see how the EFDSS has moved on, having somehow hung on to that wonderful 1930s bit of Grade II listed real estate in Camden Town. Yes, there are still lots of public dances, musicians’ events, ceilidhs and concerts, but there’s also a strong education strand to its work and there seem to be learning opportunities for every age group.

The current brochure shows, for example, a Monday night drop in class for musicians, a folk choir on Wednesdays, folk music workshops on several Saturdays – and much more.  There is, actually, something going on in the building every day of the week, including Sundays.

There’s a lot for children too. During the February half term there were morning dance and song sessions for age 6-9, some afternoon instrumental workshops for age 9-11 and a three day folk music making course for 12-18 year olds. And that’s in addition to, among other things, the regular Saturday afternoon family barn dances.

Inevitably the EFDSS also works widely in schools and with teachers these days. For example, there is a one day course at the end of this month to help teachers in primary and secondary schools find ways of using folk songs and music in their teaching. The Society also produces education resources, and among other things, runs a Folk Educators Group.

In short Cecil Sharp House seems now to be a lively arts centre promoting the performing arts, especially communal (literally) ones. A good place, I would have thought, incidentally for any actor musician wanting to improve folk skills or period dancing. Plenty of learning and plenty of fun for all.

I’m sure, if he were still around, my musician/teacher father would approve, although he always loathed the magnificent mural by Ivon Hitchens which faced him across Kennedy, Cecil Sharp House’s main hall, as he played for all those dances.