PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Arts Commission has awarded traditional arts apprenticeship grants for 26 years. Over that span, many of the grants have gone to Franco-American and New England-style musical masters and their students. But this year, for the first time, a grant is going to a traditional Irish-style musician.
The arts commission recently named concertina player Christian Stevens a 2017 master and his student, Tim Ebersold, an apprentice.
Stevens is also the first concertina player to ever get the official nod from the commission.
“I was a bit shocked that we got the award,” said Stevens of Freeport. “I’m flattered, I really am.”
Most traditional arts are picked up informally. Skills develop slowly over time, through observation. The $3,000 MAC grants, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, are meant to speed up that process. They seek to foster formal, one-on-one teaching of traditional Maine crafts. The money covers tuition for up to twelve months. Other awards this year went to a northern Maine snowshoe maker, a step dancer and a Somali Bantu basket maker in Lewiston.
“I didn’t have a one-on-one teacher in Irish music so much as I went to a lot of sessions,” said Stevens, while taking a breather during a lesson with Ebersold in Portland. “I didn’t have the benefit of sitting with a master in front of a peat fire for hours on end every day.”
Sessions are friendly musical get-togethers usually held in pubs or kitchens.
Stevens said he still values the group experience of session playing. But he also likes being able to pass on his own specific ideas about the music in a formal lesson setting. Plus, it speeds things up for the student. That, in turn, keeps the traditional art alive.
“It’s like a fast forward,” said Ebersold, who directs the band at Gorham High School. “He spent years trying to develop the style of music that he plays in, and I take lessons from him and I get all that knowledge that he took years doing, and I get it in a shorter amount of time.”
Stevens, 32, may at first seem too young to be a master. But he’s already spent half his life playing Irish music. He saw his first concertina when his middle school science teacher brought one to class. Stevens started playing traditional music sessions in Portland pubs when he was 15.
“My father used to drive me up [from York] and drink pints in the corner all afternoon. He had a good time. My real name is Chris but everyone in Portland calls me Junior,” Stevens said. “I was younger than everybody there, so I was Junior. It’s kind of stuck. It’s one of the few nicknames that I’ve ever had that I didn’t hate, so I embraced it.”
The moniker is particularly charming now, as he now stands somewhere around six-and-a-half feet tall. He’s also nearly a decade younger than his apprentice.
For the uninitiated, a concertina looks a bit like an accordion but much smaller. It’s two sets of buttons connected by a bellows. Forced air flows over metal reeds, making sound. A different note plays depending on whether you’re pushing or pulling on the bellows.
“You can do one thing on the left hand and another thing on the right hand,” said Stevens. “Its punchiness is really well suited to traditional music — it’s got a really good rhythmic punch that way.”
Concertinas were first mass produced in the middle of the 19th century. They were quite affordable for common folks. They wormed their way into traditional Irish music by the dawn of the 20th century. That makes them a newcomer to traditional Irish music.
Playing the uncommon instrument helped Stevens win the award, said Kathleen Mundell, a traditional arts specialist with the MAC.
“There’s already been a lot of fiddlers,” said Mundell. “And the judges were impressed with his playing and that he was so connected with the traditional music scenes in Portland and Boston.”
Aside from teaching, Stevens plays concertina and accordion with The Press Gang, a traditional Irish group based in Maine. They’ve toured the country and appeared at many important festivals. That said, you can still find him sitting in with at least three local sessions every week in Portland.
At the end of their grant, Stevens and Ebersold hope to have a concert with the band at Gorham High School. Until then, Stevens said he’ll keep on playing and teaching. All the while, being grateful for the appreciation the MAC has given him.
“I make my living spreading the ‘good word’ so it’s nice to be recognized,” he said.