Award-winning fiddler, step dancing expert, and vocalist, April Verch brings new meaning to the word multi-tasking. A winner of both the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle and Open Fiddle Championships, April was already pleading with her parents for a fiddle of her own by the age of three. Today she is a consummate musician whose mastery of fiddle playing technique has left her free to fully explore the fiddle as a vehicle for self-expression. April’s critically-acclaimed current album Take Me Back
(2006) sees her branching out into bluegrass (“Tennessee Wagoner”) and jazz (“Monarch”). But she remains true to her Ottawa Valley roots with locally-inspired pieces like “Grand Slaque” and manages to capture the magic of her live performances on tape to make her most satisfying album yet.
What’s your earliest memory of fiddling?
Well, I started step dancing before I started fiddling. Where I come from in the Ottawa Valley, step dancing was more popular for girls, I guess, than fiddling was and I started lessons in that because my older sister already did. That is what attracted me to the fiddle, because we practiced and performed dancing to fiddle music and when we competed, the contests were combined. So you would have an eight and under fiddle class and eight and under step dancing. I was meeting a lot of fiddlers and I really loved the sound of the instrument and the energy of the music. Also my dad had a little local country band. He mainly played the guitar and sang but he played a little bit of fiddle so I guess I had that little bit of influence, too. I badly wanted to learn and I started asking for a fiddle when I was three and finally got a fiddle for my birthday when I was six.
I remember that my birthday was on a Saturday that year and every Sunday morning our family goes to church and you have to be pretty sick to stay home. I was not very sick but I guess I had a bit of a cold, and I remember my dad saying he would stay at home with me and that we sat in the living room and he showed me my first few notes while everybody else was at church.
Can you tell us about the fiddling tradition in the Ottawa Valley?
The story I was always told growing up is that the fiddle tradition started here when the area was settled and people were coming mainly to work in the logging camps. That was the main industry in the Ottawa Valley and they would take their fiddle to the camp for the long winter. Most of the people that were coming were Germans, Polish, French, Irish, and Scottish, so they all had fiddle traditions and they would sit around at night and swap tunes. That is kind of how the style started and, of course, it has continued evolving since then. That is why it is such a melting pot of different influences and you can certainly hear that in the Ottawa Valley style of fiddle music. I really looked up to all of the local fiddlers that I would meet at the Renfrew County fiddler dances. When you are so young you wonder whether you will ever be in that class. I didn’t have one in particular that I chose as my role model. I just wanted to be like all of them, I think.
As someone who won the Canadian Grand Masters and the Open Fiddle Championships, how important were those competitions for you?
I guess, living in Ontario, the scene is quite big so from the middle of May until the beginning of September you can pretty much find a contest somewhere in Ontario every weekend. It is a bigger part of the fiddle scene in Ontario than it is in some other provinces and we did go to quite a few of them. I always enjoyed it. It was a really healthy thing for me, and my parents always said from the very first contest that you compete against yourself and as long as you have done your best it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose.
I guess most traditions kind of go in waves and when I first started fiddling I was the only kid in my school who played the fiddle. It was not a cool thing to do but you had all summer to look forward to –– going and being with other people your age that also liked to fiddle, so it was really a time to connect with other children that liked to do what you did. It was going back to the fiddler park afterwards to jam that was the highlight. It was a good experience for me. I talked to a lot of people that had mixed feelings about growing up in contests and I think it is not always as healthy but I really enjoyed it.
You mentioned that when you started playing, the fiddle wasn’t seen as cool by teenagers. Do you think this is changing now?
It definitely is changing. I think it is really great. I can remember what it was like when I started but even talking to the real old-timers here in the Valley, they talk about how it goes in waves and how we are at a peak of it. They are all saying it seems to be lasting longer this time and maybe it is here to stay and maybe it won’t always be this up and down thing that we have seen in the past. Maybe it is prevalent enough now that it’s going to remain a part of things permanently.
Have you seen any young fiddlers that have impressed you?
Yes, there are so many. A few years ago I was still around enough, judging the odd contest. I have not had the chance to do that too much over the last couple of years but that’s when I notice it most. When I have been gone for a couple of years and then I go and judge a contest, it really is most remarkable.
I would say that right now the eighteen and under category is more impressive than it has ever been. They are almost as good as the people playing in the championship class. The other thing that I really notice is that the kids in the twelve and under are playing stuff as hard now as used to be played in the championship –– the whole level of things has elevated that much.
[For the rest of this interview, and April’s tune “The Hub,” purchase the Spring 2007 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Petra Jones is a freelance writer and musician based in England. Besides being an avid fan of fiddle music, Petra has a house full of musical instruments from bass guitars to banjos, and five strings through to twelve. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Acoustic, Bass Guitar, Just Jazz Guitar, and a host of other music publications on both sides of the Atlantic.]