A student showcase at the end of the 2019 Acadia Trad Festival at College of the Atlantic. PHOTOS COURTESY OF DYLAN LADDS/ACADIA TRAD SCHOOL

Acadia Trad School ends its run: Festival changed lives, launched careers

BAR HARBOR — For seven summers, the Acadia School of Traditional Music and Dance brought world-class musicians and dancers to Mount Desert Island for a week-long festival and residential camp. 

The Acadia Trad School, as it was also called, included public concerts at College of the Atlantic and venues all over Mount Desert Island, along with drop-in and week-long workshops and classes in everything from Appalachian clogging to concertinabanjo to bodhrán. The organization also held year-round Celtic sessions, school programs and more. 

The edition of the festival planned for this coming July was to be the final one, as logistics have changed for the all-volunteer organization. That decision was made in early February. Then, as the coronavirus pandemic worsened, the festival’s leaders made the difficult call and canceled the 2020 festival as well. 

A music-and-dance festival is a physical experience, with contra dancing and small-group classes and jam sessions in close quarters, Executive Director Jennifer Torrance told the Islander. “We would have (had) no choice but to change all of those things” this year, she said, to increase physical distancing. And that would make the experience almost unrecognizable. 

Despite the decision to end the festival, the community is staying connected — some are meeting on Zoom every Sunday morning — and people are reflecting on the difference the Acadia Trad School has made in their lives. 

Dance faculty Kevin Doyle leads a class during the 2019 Acadia Trad Festival.

“Acadia was fundamentally a school; students and teachers, woven together with a common artistic thread,” student Brennish Thomson said in a video tribute to the festival released last week. 

“But it was also an ever-vibrant haven for those of us who wanted something more for traditional music’s future.” 

“Acadia Trad is a place driven by love where inspiration can be found any way you turn,” wrote another student, Anabelle Keimach. “This festival has profoundly impacted me as a musician — opening my eyes to a music world filled with opportunity. The generosity of spirit present in this community is unmatched, and I feel so grateful to have been a part of it.” 

Students at the school ranged from beginners of all ages to early-career professionals taking the opportunity to study with a particular teacher. 

Gus LaCasse of Trenton was 12 years old when he attended the first festival in 2013. 

“The first couple years, those would be my only lessons and most of the playing I’d do in the year,” he said. The festival connected him with teachers and opportunities to record and perform, including at Le Congrès Mondial Acadien, or the Acadian World Congress.

Seán Heely teaching fiddle at last year’s festival. Heely first came to Acadia Trad as a student in 2014, and later joined the faculty.

Seán Heely, now U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion, first came to the Trad School in 2014 when he was a student at the University of South Carolina, and returned every year, eventually joining the faculty. 

“I happened to find out about Acadia, I think, just from a Google search,” he said. He looked up a few of the faculty members whose names he didn’t recognize, including Liz Carroll. 

“I remember looking her up just to say, who is this person, then life changed just from hearing her once,” he said. “I had never heard anybody create the sounds that she was creating on fiddle.” 

“And then she also happened to be a very good teacher and incredible person,” he continued. “She inspired me so much to take on the fiddle more full time.”

Heely also worked with Conners Emerson teacher Rebecca Edmondson to organize performances and workshops in local schools. 

For Trad School founder Chuck Donnelly, a computational scientist, the festival was a passion project. He worked for many years at The Jackson Laboratory and founded a software company, RockStep Solutions. 

In 2015, Torrance, who also works for the laboratory, offered to help with marketing and communications for the festival. Two years later, when Donnelly decided he needed to step down from the festival leadership, Torrance became executive director. 

Nancy Neff is the director of operations and Hanz Araki is the festival director. 

“Nancy and I agreed to do it if we could do it together,” Torrance said. 

Fiddle students practicing during the 2019 Acadia Trad Festival.

All of them are volunteers. Every step of the way, no one has been paid anything,” she saidThe festival is 100 percent volunteer, with the exception of the faculty. It’s a labor of love in every way.” 

Neff first came to the festival in 2015. She plays piano accordion and bouzouki, a Greek instrument in the lute family. For a while, she lived across the street from Jennifer Torrance and her husband, Josh Torrance, and the three of them formed a band. 

Neff said she has been inspired by the constant give and take in the festival community. 

“The people you get coming to these things are people who want to play with each other, want to learn from each other,” she said. “Students learn from teachers and teachers learn from the students. That’s inherent in the music. The music is better for being played together. And the music bends and changes with each person, so you learn a level of flexibility.” 

That ability to be flexible was important in the hard conversations about bringing the festival to a close. 

“I have always felt that music and dance are particularly special art forms, ones that — much like life itself — must be appreciated for their fleeting, momentary nature,” Torrance wrote in an announcement to the festival community. 

“Our founder, Chuck Donnelly, reminded me recently of the beautiful Tibetan mandalas made of sand. They are created slowly and carefully by a community, appreciated for a time, and then brushed away; the individual grains of sand free to become another work of art.” 

For example, in the recent community Zoom calls, Torrance said, one student talked about maybe opening up a new music venue in his town. 

He’s one of hundreds of people who have been inspired in various ways by the Acadia School of Traditional Music and Dance, she said. 

“I hope they will take that and go out to their own communities and figure out ways to plant seeds there.” 


Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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