Friendship inspires musical gatherings in Upper Valley fiddler’s home

Fiddle teacher Beth Telford, right, plays a tune for student Lauren Bomalaski, of Tunbridge, left, to take home and learn by ear during a lesson at Telford’s Braintree, Vt., home on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Telford started playing classical violin at age 8, later became interested in traditional music and played for contra dances. After meeting fiddler Jerry Holland in the late 1990s, she dedicated herself to the style of Celtic music played on Cape Breton, the Canadian island where he lived. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Fiddle teacher Beth Telford, right, plays a tune for student Lauren Bomalaski, of Tunbridge, left, to take home and learn by ear during a lesson at Telford’s Braintree, Vt., home on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Telford started playing classical violin at age 8, later became interested in traditional music and played for contra dances. After meeting fiddler Jerry Holland in the late 1990s, she dedicated herself to the style of Celtic music played on Cape Breton, the Canadian island where he lived. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News – James M. Patterson

Beth Telford’s instrument sits in a stand during a lesson at her home in Braintree, Vt., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Beth Telford’s instrument sits in a stand during a lesson at her home in Braintree, Vt., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Fiddle teacher Beth Telford, left, plays a tune with student Lauren Bomalaski, of Tunbridge, right, as her yellow Lab Trouble stretches on the couch in Braintree, Vt., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Telford encourages her students to learn the classical bow and violin holds to help avoid repetitive stress injuries. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Fiddle teacher Beth Telford, left, plays a tune with student Lauren Bomalaski, of Tunbridge, right, as her yellow Lab Trouble stretches on the couch in Braintree, Vt., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Telford encourages her students to learn the classical bow and violin holds to help avoid repetitive stress injuries. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news photographs – James M. Patterson

Beth Telford, left, helps student Lauren Bomalaski, of Tunbridge, work through a tune during a lesson at her home in Braintree, Vt., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Bomalaski started playing last September and is now learning jigs and reels. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Beth Telford, left, helps student Lauren Bomalaski, of Tunbridge, work through a tune during a lesson at her home in Braintree, Vt., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Bomalaski started playing last September and is now learning jigs and reels. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By CAOIMHE MARKEY

For the Valley News

Published: 03-27-2024 4:28 PM

Modified: 03-28-2024 9:51 AM


Music is made to be experienced in person. Watching performances online can be convenient, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person concerts. The feeling of interconnectedness that comes from a festival, concert or backyard jam, however, is not easily replaced by a screen. Not only does it bring musicians together with their audiences, but by performing in ensembles, musicians can transmit their knowledge across cultures and generations and establish new bonds. Just ask fiddler Beth Telford.

“A lot of it began with Jerry,” Telford said, speaking of well-known Celtic fiddler Jerry Holland, whom she described as her best friend, mentor and musical partner. “Though I had been playing fiddle my whole life, it was our friendship that inspired us to create an environment that would bring people together through music in a similar way that we were brought together.”

Originally from Pawtucket, R.I., Telford took up classical violin at the age of 8, after asking her parents for the instrument for Christmas on a whim. By 14, she was invited to join the Brown University Orchestra. The scene was not for her, she said. The rigidity of classical training did not allow for the kind of fluid creative expression and growth that she wanted.

Though she continued to play fiddle as a hobby, her undergraduate path took her away from music and into the natural world. She received a degree in forestry and wildlife management from the University of Rhode Island. After graduating, she looked north. Telford had spent summers trekking through the White Mountains and exploring the natural beauty of Vermont. She wagered that she would end up there one way or another.

“I begged my parents to move the whole time I was a kid,” she said with a grin. “Going north was always the goal.”

So in 1983, she moved to Vermont for the first time, where she was hired to be the peregrine falcon biologist at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS). She went on to earn a master’s degree in raptor biology from Boise State University.

She came back to Vermont in 1996, unable to find work in her chosen field, she rotated among jobs as a special education aide, carpenter’s assistant and helping to set up instruments at the old Vermont Violins location in Montpelier, where she was encouraged by the owners to begin giving fiddle lessons to local students. This opportunity opened her eyes.

However, it was not until she met well-known fiddler Jerry Holland that the idea of creating a collaborative setting for Celtic music came about.

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Telford and Holland first crossed paths at the 2001 Champlain Valley Folk Festival. Holland, already an established name in the Celtic community, was scheduled to play a short set, and Telford, struck by his stage presence and skill, approached him after he set down his fiddle.

“I went up and introduced myself and asked if he did any workshops or full concerts. I loved his music and wanted to hear more,” Telford explained. “He was so well-known throughout the community and yet he never had a business card. He just ripped off a piece of paper and gave me his phone number.”

During this time, and for most of Holland’s life, he resided in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, about a 16-hour drive from Vermont.

The island, much like the rest of Nova Scotia, is home to a large population of Scottish descendants, whose ancestors immigrated into the country during the Highland Clearances, a period from 1750 to 1860 when economic and societal changes in the Scottish Highlands resulted in the forced eviction of over 50,000 tenants.

Celtic music has remained a vital part of the province’s culture, and musicians developed the distinctive style of Cape Breton fiddling.

Holland, despite spending his childhood in Massachusetts, was raised by Canadian parents and spent summers on the island. Through his adulthood, his music took him to festivals and shows all over the Americas.

One such trip, organized by phone with Telford only months after their first meeting, brought him to Montpelier.

Outside of the hustle and bustle of a festival, in a more personable setting, the two musicians sat down alongside each other after a session.

“It was just one of those things where we just completely hit it off. I had been through the break up of my band, and he was going through something, and we just had a complete heart-to-heart,” Telford said.

Soon, the two were brainstorming other ways to bring people together to play and enjoy Celtic music. “The initial idea was that we wanted to bring people to Cape Breton and show off its magic, so we decided to put together a weeklong retreat. Seventeen of us wound up on the cape in 2001,” Telford said. “It was intergenerational, all ages, all levels of skill. We rented rooms in this old hostel with a dining hall and piano and a beautiful outside deck and just played and played together.”

Though it was the first and last time Telford and Holland hosted their camp in Cape Breton, it set their idea of Celtic-based camps in motion.

From then on, they hosted two camps a year at Telford’s home in Vermont, one in the winter and one in the summer. But after Holland’s passing in 2009 at the age of 54, Telford found it difficult to carry on.

“Like I said, he ended up becoming my best friend. He was magic. So I kind of lost my heart about (the camps) after he died, but I kept with them. And then COVID hit,” said Telford. “But about a year or so later, I started doing the summer camps again, because I felt like people still needed to get together and play music. So I just had everyone come and pitch tents in the yard and we just played outside.”

Though the main objective of the camps is to improve a participant’s skill and musicality, their flexible schedule allows musicians to avoid burnout.

From her days in classical music, she learned that fiercely playing without breaks would lead to a complicated and less congenial relationship with music, one based more on rigidity than joy. As such, campers tend to rotate between playing together, swimming, engaging in icebreakers and making use of Telford’s ping-pong table.

Keeping ensemble music alive in central Vermont is no small feat, especially when learning how to play an instrument online is so easily accessible and musical groups in rural communities can be hard to find and break into. But music is an inherently social practice that can produce lifelong bonds such as Holland and Telford’s and that remind musicians to step out of their comfort zone and make that first connection.

Beth Telford and guitarist Justin Park in their newly christened duo “High Drive” are performing from 2 to 5 p.m. on April 6 at King Arthur Baking in Norwich, and from 6 to 8 p.m. on April 17 at Ransom Tavern in South Woodstock.

Caoimhe Markey is a freelance writer. She lives in Woodstock.