It’s hardly surprising that a nyckelharpa group got started in the Twin Cities. The area has many Nordic music and dance groups, and a variety of ethnic venues. The American Swedish Institute’s spelmanslag specializes in tunes from Dalarna, Sweden; the Twin Cities Hardingfelelag focuses on the Norwegian hardangar fiddle; Finn Hall plays traditional Finnish music and Ballade keeps Danish music alive. A variety of other individuals and groups span the Scandinavian spectrum. Throughout the year there are numerous dances and festivals, a favorite is the Nordic Ball when all the groups come together.
Even though there were a few nyckelharpas in the Twin Cities Scandinavian community, there was no organized group of players until the late 1990s. Interest in the instrument had been fostered by a couple of Swedish nyckelharpa players who had toured the area, and The American Nyckelharpa Association had chosen the Twin Cities as the setting for a stämma. Then because the area is fortunate to have an accomplished nyckelharpa player and teacher (Becky Weis Nord), it was not long before several were making inquiries about lessons. Among them were two Scandinavian dancers who each dared the other to learn to play the instrument. Soon a group was beginning, with practices held in a garage. New members were recruited largely from the Scandinavian dance community. Practices soon moved from the garage to a suburban church, and it was not long before there were opportunities for public performances.
The group’s enthusiasm over the years has been sustained by visits from Swedish nyckelharpa players who have conducted workshops and taught lessons. Their expertise and willingness to work with the group has not only improved our playing abilities but has deepened our appreciation of Swedish musical traditions. In addition several of our members have spent time in Sweden studying the harpa, most notably at the Eric Sahlström Institute.
As one of the larger nyckelharpalags outside of Sweden, we currently have 19 members and we continue to grow. We also have an affiliate membership for those who support the mission of the lag and want to be informed of our activities.
As the membership grew, the lag became more structured in a formal sense, incorporating as a non-profit organization with officers and a board of directors to handle the business details. But for playing purposes the lag has maintained a philosophy of “collaborative leadership.” Thus, any member can serve as an “event leader” for a gig, and leading the various tunes is also a shared responsibility.
The group performs at a wide variety of venues. In addition to the Nordic-related events such as Nisswa Stämman, the Scandinavian Ball and Midsummer at the American Swedish Institute, we have performed for elder care residents, church congregations and auxiliary groups, libraries, civic organizations and community festivals. For a number of years we have been invited to perform for the holiday shoppers at the Galleria mall in Edina. These performances are motivational for the group as we are encouraged to continually learn new tunes. They also promote the awareness of the nyckelharpa and provide sociability, both within the group and between the members and our various audiences.
Each year individual members (or small groups) have the opportunity to play a few tunes of their choosing at our “Friends and Family” event. The event allows players to present tunes and arrangements of their choosing to an audience invited by the members.
For beginning players there are a variety of resources available to help them expand their playing ability and their repertoire of tunes. A music committee has worked diligently with the ultimate goal of having sheet music, audio and video renditions of each tune in the lag’s master tune list. In addition more advanced players are available to mentor the beginners.
All indications are that the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag will continue to have a strong presence in maintaining Scandinavian folk music traditions in the Upper Midwest.