VOLUNTEERING – THE ROOTS OF TRAD by Rachel Hair

I’m Rachel and I guess I’m what you’d describe as a mid-career professional musician, having been fortunate enough to enjoy some 18 years freelancing in performing and teaching Scottish harp. It’s had its ups and downs but I’m now at a point in my career where I genuinely love everything I do, and I’m thankfully managing to survive financially.

With Ron Jappy and Japanese band John John Festival at Mori Michi Ichiba festival

I’ve seen many changes in our traditional music scene in Scotland. Many of my personal experiences have been thanks to the work of volunteers: whether that be committee members at the local fèis, the Clàrsach Society local branch harp hire organiser, artist liaisons and drivers at festivals. All have helped me in my life, and all help shape our traditional music scene here in Scotland; helping keep it rooted in our communities.

With Celtic Colours festival volunteer driver Woody and Manx singer Ruth Keggin

But the last few years have been tough. Organisations and festivals have struggled to source volunteers – whether that’s committee or board members for year round planning, or people to help once the event itself begins. I remember a board member of a trad organisation speaking about “volunteer fatigue” – people have grown used to having more free time during lockdown, so have been hesitant to get involved again once life restarted.  I’ve also heard just this last month of 2 music/folk clubs who have pleaded for more volunteers to join their ageing committees; as if they can’t form a committee, they can’t continue to put on concerts.

So I’m hoping that this blog might help convince you to volunteer – whether you’re someone who enjoys listening to traditional music, plays it as a hobby, or is even a professional full-time musician, and help our traditional music scene to continue to flourish.

For the last 10 years I’ve been a volunteer committee/team member of the Edinburgh International Harp Festival. I was a bit of a surprise member – I remember observing a Clàrsach Society Executive Council meeting and they announced that harpist Patsy Seddon would be joining as an Artistic Advisor to the festival. Someone said something along the lines of, “Is there anyone else who’d like to join the committee” and I bravely raised my hand – I think folk were a bit surprised, however, I also remember Patsy keenly nodding her head at me!

Rachel playing in a session at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival (John Davidson)

Looking back, I think that I just wanted to be more involved in the festival, as I had enjoyed attending as a punter, and latterly, as a tutor. Now, however, I can see how my experiences as a professional musician have, alongside our fantastic team, helped us to grow the event into one of the world’s largest harp festivals.

Volunteering can be so much more than giving something back. As we grow older, we become more experienced in our chosen careers and I believe that using the skills we have learned in these is key to being a useful volunteer. At our festival, we have a team of 8 year-round volunteer organisers aided by 2 part time paid workers. We’re a mixture of professional and harp enthusiasts, with everyone on our team having a role in which they can use their own skills and experiences.

For me, it means sharing my knowledge of how other harp festivals I perform and teach at work, and using the skills I’ve learnt in publicising and marketing myself as a self-releasing artist to benefit the marketing of the festival. Our festival stage manager has been a professional musician for over 30 years. She’s had so many good and bad experiences in her career, that she knows exactly what the ideal on and off stage environment should be for artists, and how to effectively schedule soundchecks.

Our tech manager runs his own Event Services company, meaning he’s able to advise us on what we need in terms of crew and equipment for sound and lights; ensuring they have the right working conditions to do a top-notch job. Our sponsorship co-ordinator used to work for a global company, and this experience means that she always uses the right tone when approaching companies for sponsorship.

It’s not all about using the skills you already have: being a volunteers allows you to learn new ones. For example, I’m a talker; so I’ve tried really hard to listen more and be more patient. (It’s still a work in process!) Being involved behind the scenes at a festival has also helped me plan my own tours more productively.

Rachel with fellow Harp Festival volunteer committee member and steward co-ordinator Annette (John Davidson)

I’ve felt so many benefits from being a volunteer on our team. I find great joy in knowing that I’m helping create an event that people love attending; an event that creates work for artists and tutors, and allows people to engage with and learn traditional music. As a freelance professional, most of what I do day-to-day can feel self indulgent and self-centred; so it’s good to give back and be part of a team made up of people of all ages, and from a variety of careers and backgrounds.

Ultimately, the reward of seeing our festival successfully happen each year is the biggest thrill. I’ve made lifelong friends, that are both artists and repeat festival visitors. I also get to hear some phenomenal music for free every year!

Volunteers at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival (John Davidson)

So, do you have skills that could benefit a local folk club, festival or traditional teaching organisation? Are you a finance ace, meaning you could help cash up at the end of events or be a treasurer? A whizz with words, to help write funding applications or sponsorship emails?

Skilled at taking minutes at meetings? Or a people person, who could welcome visitors and take tickets at a door? If so, why not give it a go? Our folk clubs, festivals and organisations really need us to help our scene to continue to grow.

Some tips if you are going to take that first step into volunteering:

  • Be honest about how much time you can dedicate. Can you be a year-round organising volunteer, or are you better suited to a “during event” role?
  • Think about what you can bring to a team – passion is key, but do you have any other skills from your own experiences and career?
  • If you’re struggling with a task as a volunteer, ask for help or tell someone else in your team. Burnout is real, and I struggle at times with the balance of my freelance work and festival volunteer work.

 

And if you’re not yet able to take that step, some things to remember:

  • If you’re at an event, festival, or dealing with an organisation, please try to be nice and polite to those working there. Many will be volunteers, donating their free time.
  • If you’re emailing or contacting an event, festival or organisation on social media, please be aware that many of the people who will reply will be volunteers, and definitely won’t be working 24/7; so it may be a while until you get a reply.

 

To finish, I should tell you that the next Edinburgh International Harp Festival takes place from the 5-9th April at George Watson’s College and we’re still looking for volunteers! If you’d like to get involved, or just come along to our great series of concerts, courses, workshops and sessions visit: https://www.harpfestival.co.uk/about/volunteer/