Dr Fay Hield conducts a burgeoning performance career alongside one as a University of Sheffield academic. The award-winning folk singer explains how a BMus in folk and traditional music gave her the academic bug.

Tell us about yourself
I am a folk singer and ethnomusicologist at The University of Sheffield. I was born and brought up around Keighley, West Yorkshire by folk singing and dancing parents. I didn’t ‘get into’ folk music, I was taken round festivals as a child and it was a way of life – my friends all sang, danced and played and I was brought up in a wonderful culture of people making music and dancing together. In my teens, I started doing the odd performance at folk clubs.  This is when the questions started – what is ‘the tradition’, why do some people think I’m doing it wrong and say I won’t understand these songs until I’m older? How do they know what it should sound or feel like? What is it they know that I don’t? Who owns this music and has the right to tell others how it should be done?  In my early twenties I did an undergraduate degree in folk and traditional music at Newcastle University to try and unravel some of these questions, that raised more questions, so I did a PhD at Sheffield and I’m still here looking for answers, and new questions. I never stopped singing and have developed projects exploring traditional repertoires. I just want to understand more about what this scene is and why we all do what we do.

What is the area of your research?
I study traditional music, mainly in England, though geographical boundaries are fairly contentious. I approach this through using the songs themselves in performance and composition, but also through ethnomusicological enquiry into the setting of performance and peoples’ relationships to their music. Given my background, I have approached this through insider approaches, with auto-ethnography playing a part alongside more conventional observation and interviewing. I also employ co-produced research techniques, for example, Transmitting Musical Heritage worked with three community music organisations with differing international associations to explore how they work in this area. A group of around a dozen of us surfaced what we do in our practice to develop understandings of the similarities and differences of performing and teaching heritage/traditional music.

What is the importance of this research?
Folk and traditional music are often less systematically structured than other musical disciplines and as such have a presence that can fall below the radar in conventional research circles. Compared to classical music for example, this is a very under-researched area, though participating in folk music has a tremendous impact on those who take part.  The participants themselves, the performers, audiences, professionals and amateurs, are extremely keen for their voices to be heard and I am in a privileged position to be able to work with them to reach some understandings of why this music is so powerful and help get these messages across in practical ways.

Dr Fay Hield is a lecturer in ethnomusicology and music management at the University of Sheffield. She teaches a range of undergraduate modules such as, music in the community, music business, ethnomusicology and music of the world. She is director of the Music Management MA and was instrumental in developing a new distance learning MA in Traditional Music of the British Isles. Her current research interests include the Transmitting Musical Heritage project, which involves three community music groups exploring how they pass on tradition.