5 minutes with: Nancy Kerr-Elliott, Folk and Traditional Music Degree

5 minutes with: Nancy Kerr-Elliott, Folk and Traditional Music Degree

by Newcastle University

Acclaimed folk musician Nancy Kerr-Elliott has recently joined Newcastle University as a Lecturer in Folk and Traditional Music.

With 40 years' experience playing the violin and a wealth of knowledge spanning composition, traditional song, English violin repertoire and music therapy, Nancy brings an abundance of expertise to share with students. Her extensive and varied career has won her a string of awards including the BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year Award, two BBC Radio 2 Best Duo Awards and the Songs for Social Justice Award.

We caught up with her to find out more about her plans for the role and what students can expect when joining the Folk and Traditional Music course.


Welcome, Nancy! It’s fantastic to have you on board. What drew you to the role at Newcastle University?

I’m delighted to be at Newcastle. I feel about as connected to the Folk and Traditional Music course as I could possibly be, without having actually studied on it myself! I have had guest tutor/lecturer roles here for many years, and my husband teaches traditional song on the course, so it’s wonderful to finally take on a post of my own. My family are in the North East and I grew up here, so it will be lovely and familiar when I get to be on campus and spend some time in the region.


What are you most looking forward to about the role?

I love the depth of thought that students are giving to the themes in their music, and I’ve already enjoyed hearing the technique development of singers and instrumentalists as they progress through the course and into performance roles – there’s lots of individuality and diversity in how graduates choose to practice, which is a treat to observe and be part of.

I’m also blown away by the strength of the faculty, both in Folk and in the wider school – many of my colleagues are absolute trailblazers, particularly representing women in music and scholarship, and I can’t wait to work together. Some of us go way back and they are all big heroes of mine!


Tell us about your career history so far, and how you came to be a Lecturer.

I studied music and performance in just about every setting there is, including with family, in my social scene, at school and in further and higher education. Like many of my fellow traditional musicians, I was encouraged to view teaching as something that naturally accompanied performance and was equally valued. I’ve taught privately, run workshops in the community and at summer schools and festivals, and lectured at Conservatoires and Universities around the UK.

I focused for a long time on becoming a “useful” musician – someone with whom people would want to collaborate. I’ve been lucky to play with multiple outfits nationally and internationally and have sustained a very enjoyable touring profile, most notably in a duo with my husband James Fagan, and later as a solo singer-songwriter.

I qualified in Music Therapy at Bristol University and this led to my academic and research interests. Although I’m not currently a practicing MT, I have trained students for careers in community music and healthcare, and I’m interested in the interactions between music, mental health and pedagogy.

My current work profile incorporates performance, teaching, composing for commissions and being a mum!


What do you enjoy about lecturing? How does it compare with your career as a performer?

I think folk music and Higher Education are a perfect match – there are so many themes that can be explored through practice and research.

In 2019 one of my Leeds Conservatoire students, Maddie Morris, won the BBC Young Folk Award. Seeing emerging artists achieve that sort of impact is incredible – teaching allows you to observe those processes at close quarters and to be part of the experiences of another generation of musicians. It’s a huge privilege.

I also find that my own practice is enriched by sharing it through transmission – I understand familiar repertoire more deeply after having reflected on it with students who may be encountering it for the first time.


What can students expect you to bring to the course?

Anything I can that will be useful! I’m a vocalist and strings player and I love group singing and harmony, improvisation and creating ensemble arrangements. I’m passionate about making song writing accessible to everyone, even those for whom it’s totally new! 

I’ve had a lot of practical experience in diverse settings, from small to big gigs for example, and of course I draw on this when teaching performance. As I build my research profile, I’m constantly exploring new frameworks for what I do, just as my students are, which gives us common ground.

I try to prioritise students’ own inner processes and help them reflect upon and develop them – for example, how might a singer incorporate new techniques while staying true to their individual style? How might composers balance tradition and innovation? There are so many routes through the training, and so much room for individuality – it’s really exciting.


The last year has brought big challenges – how are you hoping to engage and support students in the coming months?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’ve been lucky in spite of these difficult times. I’ve been able to continue composing, sharing music online, mentoring emerging artists and teaching my students. A lot of this is due to the fact that I’ve had brilliant family support!

I think it’s really important to communicate the positives to our students – there is so much that we can still do as artists, in terms of our daily practice, self-care, writing, technique development… and we will add live performance back into this, when the time is right.

Folk has a unique communal character – spontaneous music-making is literally built into our songs and tunes. I’m amazed at how durable it has remained in spite of Covid: massive respect to all the artists and organisers who have kept the faith online! And the audience have stayed true throughout. I’m convinced that when we can all meet again, the scene will continue to grow in strength, and our students will play a vital role in this.


How does the Folk and Traditional Music degree help to prepare students for a career in the arts?

There’s a great synthesis of scholarship and performance here, which opens up the possibilities for all musicians seeking a career in the wider arts scene. In my experience as an artist with a portfolio music career, it’s very helpful to be able to combine performance with teaching, research and theory. All areas of interest are relevant, and this course provides a fantastic range of training.


What would you say to anyone who is considering doing the Folk and Traditional Music Degree and hasn’t made their mind up yet?

I would truthfully say that, although I’ve enjoyed a very privileged music industry career, if I had the chance to go back in time and do this course I would definitely take it! 

There’s no doubt that it would have prepared me with more of a solid grounding in several areas that were missing earlier in my career.

I eventually got there, through trial and error and huge support from mentors – but I’d encourage any artist to seize the opportunity to study the music that they are passionate about at this level, if they possibly can.


Nancy Kerr-Elliott will be chatting further about her new role on BBC Radio 3. Tune in on 16 April at 10.45pm or listen on catch-up to find out more about what she has to say. 


Discover the Folk and Traditional Music Degree

If you’re interested in applying for the Folk and Traditional Music degree this year, why not read our guide on applying to university after the UCAS deadline? Alternatively, to hear more from current music students about their experience, chat to them online now.


Photo credit: James Fagan Photography