A youth music mentorship program in Cape Breton is helping to introduce Gaelic culture to a new generation of musicians.

Since the fall, it has been pairing talented 12- to 18-year-olds with some of the island's top musicians, such as Howie MacDonald, Wendy MacIsaac and Tracy Dares.

Master pianist, fiddler and step dancer Kimberly Fraser is co-ordinating the program. Faced with a decline in interest in Gaelic music in recent years, she said the Celtic Colours International Festival and the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique launched the mentorship program in an effort to engage a new generation of talent in the tradition.

There are two groups of students participating in the program: one based in Sydney, another in Mabou. They meet with mentors one Saturday a month.

Music in its natural setting

Each student receives instruction in his or her chosen instrument — fiddle, pipes, piano or guitar — and everybody takes classes in Gaelic language and step-dancing. 

Fraser said a key component of the program happens outside the classroom at extra activities such as dances, ceilidhs or parties. She said the idea is to expose students to the music in its natural setting. 

"We see a lot of performance-based music but when you experience it, say at a party or at a dance, especially playing for a dance, when you hear a dancer's feet, it really makes you play in a certain way."

Grade 12 student Martina Lewis has been writing and playing her own music for some time, but she's new to jigs and reels. She said Gaelic music is different in that it's more organized.

"It has it's own template and it's fun to play with and you know what you're doing and you can enjoy the song," she said.

'Absolutely fantastic'

Some of the best experiences for her so far have been jamming with her fellow students. "That's really amazing, because there are so many talented people all playing together."

Fraser said one her best moments was at a house party hosted by local musicians Kinnon and Betty Lou Beaton. 

"There were spontaneous square sets, and people there like Joey Beaton, Mary Elizabeth MacMaster, Kinnon and Betty Lou," she said. "I think back to when I was 12 years old, how fantastic would it have been to be able to sit at a session with those guys. It was absolutely fantastic."