Fiddlers taking music to Emerald Isle

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FARMINGTON – Mount Blue High School orchestra teacher Steven Muise called for silence – trying to be heard above the din of cellos and violins, a mandolin and a guitar tuning up.

There was quiet from the 20 or so people stopping short, and then the old bluegrass tune began, slowly at first and then louder and louder – a sort of music with a foot-tapping rhythm and boundless beauty that makes your thoughts turn skyward and your hips begin to sway.

The Franklin County Fiddlers are some of the best musicians in all of SAD 9, and many have made themselves that way with the goal of getting into the audition-only group, they divulged Monday night.

Mt. Blue junior Serach Ramu of Wilton remembers the first time she saw the fiddlers play at a concert when she was in fourth grade. “I thought they were the coolest people ever,” she said. “I pushed myself so I could get into the group and be one of those awesome people I saw when I was little.”

“They were so inspiring,” remembered Laura Crowley of the first time she saw the group play. “The music was too difficult to comprehend,” the junior from Washington Township said. Their fingers flew across the strings, and it was beautiful, she added.

Muise started the group about 13 years ago, he said. He also runs an open group for middle school students interested in fiddling. He picks out most of the music, but rehearsals are run quite differently than orchestra or band practice.

Fiddling is freer than classical music, he explained, and the students often learn by ear. The group improvises occasionally and figures out the arrangements – where to stop and where to speed up, for instance – on the fly during rehearsal.

Muise picks only the best for the high school group, insisting on quality playing no matter what the instrument, he said. “I want to make it open to the kids that can really play,” he said, “almost regardless of the instrument.” He’s taken on saxophone and trumpet players, a bagpiper and a clarinetist.

When they play, the concentration is there, but you can see they’re having fun, tapping their feet, violin halfway down the arm, slack mouth, eyes glazed over, fingers and feet the only things moving.

It’s a gift to have this kind of exposure to different kinds of music, drummer Jake Smith, of Wilton, says of the high school’s program.

Muise tries to widen the fiddlers’ experience outside of rehearsals, and has taken his group to fiddling havens all over the Northeast and Canada. They’ve even made it to Nashville. This year, they hope to go to Ireland, which is widely known as a fiddler’s heaven. From April 14-20, Muise said, the students will take part in workshops and give performances, as well as seeing the Emerald Isle. With the cost at $2,000 apiece, fundraising is a must, he said, and the group is about halfway to their goal by now.

Going to Ireland might almost be coming full-circle for Farmington sophomore Molly Flanagan. “When I was little my dad was obsessed with Irish music,” she said. “It was all I heard for five years – no, eight years.” She also lived down the street from the same bagpiper who once performed with the Franklin County Fiddlers.

She remembers deciding then she wanted to be part of the group, too. “I’m going to be one of them,” she said. And she is.

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