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A Burlington Teen Shares Her Passion for Traditional Music 

click to enlarge Maeve Fairfax - COURTESY OF MARK SUSTIC
  • Courtesy of Mark Sustic
  • Maeve Fairfax

Name: Maeve Fairfax
Age: 16
Town: Burlington

Sixteen-year-old Maeve Fairfax has a bright future ahead of her. But as a musician, she feels deeply connected to the past. The Burlington High School junior is working to keep traditional music alive and well into the 21st century.

Maeve's love for traditional roots music started in elementary school, sparked by a CD of Irish music her parents often played in the house. She was instantly captivated by the music's infectious rhythm, acoustic instrumentation and beautiful melodies.

Soon, Maeve was trying out every traditional instrument she could get her hands on, eventually settling on the fiddle. She also plays flute and pennywhistle and loves to sing. When her parents saw how much Maeve and her younger sister, Gillian, enjoyed traditional music, they enrolled them in music camps, including Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival's Academy for Kids in Oak Hill, N.Y.

Maeve quickly fell in love with the inviting, generous spirit of the traditional music community. "There's an emphasis on playing together; everybody teaches everybody," said Maeve, describing lively rooms packed with people playing guitars and fiddles and singing their hearts out. Whereas classical music tends to focus more heavily on technique and accuracy, Maeve said traditional music has more of a "let's just see what we can do" ethos.

Instead of pursuing formal lessons, Maeve sought opportunities to play with others and to perform live, which is how she first discovered Young Tradition Vermont. With more than 30 programs for kids to choose from, the organization's mission is to bring traditional music and dance to Vermont youth for little to no cost.

During sixth and seventh grade, Maeve played in the Fiddleheads, a program that introduces young fiddlers to traditional music and playing with others. In eighth grade, she joined Young Tradition's Touring Group. She performed around the metro New York/New Jersey area and even traveled to Scotland, where the group opened for the well-known Scottish quartet Rant. During the trip abroad, Maeve learned everything she could from guest artists, mentors and fellow musicians, and she came home with a long list of songs to add to her growing repertoire of folk and traditional music.

Young Tradition's executive director, Mark Sustic, was struck by Maeve's passion, talent and maturity from the start. "She is inspiring to be around," he said, and "able to take on musical challenges of all shapes and sizes with a maturity missing in musicians two, three and four times her age."

In the past several years, Maeve has taken a leadership role with Young Tradition. She taught Fiddle Club to third, fourth and fifth graders at Edmunds Elementary School, played for the Children's Memorial Service at Ira Allen Chapel, was a youth leader at Young Tradition's annual summer camp, and was named the inaugural apprentice for Young Tradition's partnership with the Vermont Folklife Center, during which she worked with and learned from mentor Pete Sutherland.

click to enlarge Maeve (second from right) with fellow ensemble members - COURTESY OF MARK SUSTIC
  • Courtesy of Mark Sustic
  • Maeve (second from right) with fellow ensemble members

Recently, Maeve was also named Young Tradition's 2020/2021 artist for the second annual Youth Commission, in which, according to the organization's website, a young musician "is charged with creating a small ensemble ... and a program of original compositions and arrangements with mentors/master artists of their choosing."

Though COVID-19 restrictions have made it tough for Maeve's ensemble to rehearse in person, her versatile group continues to stay connected and hone its repertoire through online rehearsals. In spite of a pandemic, Maeve is determined to make the most of her experience as a first-time bandleader. She's developing a program of music focused on folk songs and learning from the likes of multi-instrumentalist Sutherland, composer/banjoist Moira Smiley and singer Deb Flanders. Eventually, the group plans to hold a virtual concert and hopefully release a CD.

As she hones her craft, Maeve says her favorite part of playing music continues to be connecting with fellow musicians. "I love jamming," she said. "It's awesome to come together and just see what happens." Since many traditional tunes aren't written down, but instead are passed down from generation to generation, Maeve has focused more on developing her ear and learning from others than on sight reading or music theory. "Most of my improvement has come from playing with and watching better musicians," she said.

She takes her passion for music into her learning, as well. As a student in her high school's Burlington City & Lake Semester program, which uses place-based learning and community partnerships instead of traditional classrooms, Maeve focused her final inquiry project on music education and the question: How diverse and equitable is the music education in Burlington schools, and how can we make it better? Through interviews with local musicians and educators, she found that while the district has worked hard to create an accessible, inclusive curriculum, there's still room to grow, especially in bridging barriers such as transportation, money for lessons, and access to a quiet place to practice.

Looking ahead, Maeve hopes to share her passion as a music teacher someday. "So many people have helped me and taught me over the years," she said. "I would love to be a part of sharing that with other people."

No matter what this young musician takes on next, many will be watching with excitement and listening with open ears.

"She's already made a great contribution," said Sustic, "and I fully expect it's only the beginning."

Learn more about Young Tradition Vermont at youngtraditionvermont.org.

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