Introducing ‘TradLife,’ a website for teachers, students of trad music

Frustration can lead to anger and despair – but also, sometimes, a potentially good idea like TradLife, a newly launched website that champions the teaching of traditional music.

TradLife founder Emerald Rae was carrying around a goodly amount of frustration a little more than a year ago. The Gloucester native has been an active member of the Boston area folk/acoustic music scene for some years, as a fiddler, dancer, singer, and songwriter in the Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton traditions. Known for her solo work – she has two albums to her credit – and her stint with the band Annalivia. But it was as a teacher that Rae was feeling unfulfilled.

“I’ve always loved teaching, and throughout my life I’ve had many great teachers, mentors, and friends,” she explains. “I’ve always wanted to pass on what I’ve learned. Even after 15 years – half my life – I’m still inspired to inspire others.”

Rae found, however, that there were precious few resources – especially digital – to help her locate prospective students, and vice-versa. She felt that recording and posting instructional videos online, as some musicians do, didn’t offer the kind of individualized attention and engagement that had always appealed to her, as both teacher and student.

“I didn’t want to do a general, one-size-fits-all, homogenized music lesson,” she says. “To me, it’s important for people to discuss specific questions, which can lead to more in-depth conversations. That approach captures the nuance which is a big part of traditional music – the pizzazz and the intrigue.”

So Rae put some thought into it, enlisted the help of family members and close friends, and came up with TradLife [], which she launched earlier this fall. The website is a portal through which users can set up videoconference-style or in-person lessons on fiddle, banjo, harp, flute, accordion, bodhran, voice and other instruments – and even dance – in different folk traditions, including Irish, Appalachian, Scottish, and Cape Breton. Among the more than 60 TradLife instructors are locals such as Matt and Shannon Heaton, Liam Hart, Flynn Cohen, Kieran Jordan, Ken Perlman and Peter Barnes; others are more far-flung, located in other parts of North America and even other continents, like Tony DeMarco, John Whelan, Jimmy Keane, Wendy MacIsaac, Enda Seery, Andrea Beaton, Jeremy Kittel and Natalie Haas.

Rae also is planning a series that would include artisans, such as painters, photographers and instrument makers, whose work depicts or involves aspects of folk tradition.

Other interactive features are in the works, such as listings for “trad-friendly” events and discussion forums on various traditional music or dance-related topics.

“In my travels,” says Rae, “I’ve come across people who’ve gotten really excited about traditional music, and they’ll ask, ‘Where can I find out about this stuff?’ Greater Boston is full of places to hear or learn about traditional music, but it can be a lot more difficult in other areas. Yet even here, you don’t always know where or how to get started.

“So now, someone, whether from Boston, Boise or Brazil, can log onto TradLife, browse through the profiles of instructors – with biographies and brief descriptions of their styles, as well as links to their websites or music samples – and figure out which instrument or kind of music they’re interested in exploring. Then they set up payment, date, and time for the lesson. There’s no software to download – when it’s time, you’re all set to go. And, if you live close enough to the teacher, you don’t even have to use the web; you can meet face to face.”

Rae describes the genesis of TradLife as resulting from “a four-day epiphany.”

“While I was experiencing all this frustration last year, I had lunch with a friend, and I just got on my soapbox for more than an hour about how the lack of infrastructure makes it hard to put traditional music out there. I felt kind of bad for my friend to just sit there and listen to my rant, but it did get me thinking about what I could do; and I thought about the word ‘trad,’ and how to make that the focus of whatever plan I came up with. I couldn’t sleep for the next four nights, I was so much on overdrive.”

With the advent of Skype and similar technology over the past decade making it ever easier for music teachers to give “real time” lessons online, Rae felt she had a good starting point for a concept. Fortunately, she had home-grown expertise to draw on via her stepfather, Matt Metcalf, who through his contacts in the high tech industry was able to help her find educational technology resources and integrate videoconferencing software onto the TradLife site. Rae also enlisted her mother, Jules Metcalf, to serve as business manager.

“I’m so fortunate to have a tight-knit family that is passionate about music, too. I couldn’t have embarked on this foray into web development without their help and advice,” she says.

Rae, meanwhile, has settled comfortably into her role as TradLife’s head honcho. “My job essentially entails product management, recruitment, marketing, and promotion,” she says. “These are skills I’ve been using for my musical career, so it all clicked. I guess I hadn’t realized I was an entrepreneur, but it seems to fit well with my personality. It’s also challenging me to learn new things every day - which is important to me.”

Zeal and enthusiasm don’t necessarily ensure success in a business venture, Rae knows, but she’s in it for the long haul. “It takes a long time to build something,” she says. “If your business doesn’t meet your expectations early on and you’re ready to quit, then you’re giving up on what can be a fascinating journey. When you’re passionate about something, and you want to bring it to the world, and you’ve got plenty of encouragement behind you, why not do it?”