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Playing by Heart: Steve Muise and Franklin County Fiddlers
Bruce D. Snider
2015-05-14
“Hup!” The shout punches through the gorgeous din of a big, rollicking string band. A stage full of musicians on fiddles, cellos, guitars, and other acoustic instruments is powering through “4:44,” a sweet, driving tune by the Acadian band Vishtèn. But when the big man with the little fiddle and the huge smile issues that verbal exclamation point—Hup!—the players kick up the intensity another notch, blazing along in a burst of exquisitely controlled power. Then, with another shouted signal—bang!—the whole glorious freight train slams to a halt. The players look up from their instruments, glowing, and the audience bursts into applause.
 
The smiling man, now beaming even more broadly, is Steve Muise (pronounced “Muse”), orchestra teacher at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Maine. The players, improbable as it seems after that performance, are his students. But this isn’t orchestra. It’s Franklin County Fiddlers, an ensemble Muise founded to spread the joy of playing the traditional music of New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and beyond. Now in its 22nd year, the program has accomplished that and more, broadening the skills of classical players, awakening Maine students to their cultural heritage, and building a musical community with connections that reach far beyond the state’s borders.
 
Unlike orchestra, where sight-reading is the rule, Fiddlers is built around playing by ear, arranging tunes as a group, and giving musicians room to improvise. “This year I didn’t print a single sheet of music for the kids,” Muise says. Relying on one’s ears, memory, and creativity builds musicianship, and it opens other doors as well. With a common repertoire of tunes that can be endlessly elaborated, fiddle music thrives virtually everywhere, among players of every ability. Too many talented young musicians hang up their instruments after high school, Muise says, but in Fiddlers “the expectation is that this is just the beginning, that they can do this with their kids someday.”
 
Muise studied violin formally from an early age, but he traces his passion for the instrument to a childhood visit with his Uncle Eloi in the family’s ancestral home of Nova Scotia. “He wasn’t a trained teacher by any means,” Muise remembers, “but he was a great fiddler. He would just play the tunes—Saint Anne’s Reel, Woodchopper’s Breakdown, Ragtime Annie—and let me follow. The magic thing was just that I was playing.” Degrees in performance and music education from Berklee College of Music in Boston followed. “But I might not be playing today, much less teaching, if it weren’t for fiddle music,” he says. “It was the spark.”
 
Silas Rogers caught that same spark at the age of seven or eight, when he attended his first Fiddlers concert. “They would do stuff like play behind their backs,” remembers Rogers, now eighteen, “and they played really cool arrangements.” As soon as he was eligible, he joined Muise’s middle school Fiddlers group, which serves as something of a farm team for the audition-only high school program. A powerhouse fiddler who doubles on guitar and tenor banjo, Rogers will study boatbuilding at The Apprenticeshop in Rockland after graduation. But he’ll also play professional gigs with his brother, Nolan, who at fifteen is also a veteran Fiddler—and a beast on the cello. “Steve’s influence has directed a couple of people toward musical careers,” Rogers says, “and he’s had that influence on me as well.”
 
Rogers and his senior classmates got a taste of the traveling musician’s life during their freshman year, on a six-day bus tour of the Canadian Maritimes, where they had a private workshop with Vishtèn, performed at schools, and jammed with local musicians. “Musically, we all grew a lot,” says flutist Sophia Bunnell, who felt an unexpected sense of kinship with her Acadian counterparts. “We have a slightly different set of tunes in Maine,” she says, “but there’s lots of overlap.” Muise has led similar trips to Boston, New Orleans, Québec, and Ireland—all places with links to Maine’s French-Canadian and Scots-Irish musical heritage. Fiddlers tours always include a college visit and lots of bonding time on the bus. But at home or abroad, Rogers says, the group relishes most its moments onstage, “when we’re in that groove of being the Fiddlers, and Steve’s doing his Steve thing, and we’re all just in the pocket….”

 
[For the rest of this article, as well as the tune “Reel Awesome Guy” (written for Steve Muise by 2014’s graduating Franklin County Fiddlers), subscribe to Fiddler Magazine, or purchase the Summer 2015 issue.]
 
Top photo: Andy Forster

For more information:
 
Franklin County Fiddlers: www.franklincountyfiddlers.com
Steve Muise’s recordings: www.stevemuise.com
Maine Fiddle Camp: www.mainefiddlecamp.org
Mt. Blue Orchestra Program: http://goo.gl/mek4yl