WHO: Gretchen P. Koehler, Potsdam, is the latest inductee into the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame at the North American Fiddlers’ Hall of Fame and Museum in Osceola, Lewis County.
Ms. Koehler, a native of Westfield, Mass., was nominated by fellow musicians who are members of the North Country Fiddlers Association. Ms. Koehler also is a fiddle instructor.
Her latest recording, “The Fiddlers Three,” is a collection of old-time fiddle tunes in three-part harmony with Donald Woodcock and her sister, Rebecca Koehler. She also has recorded a Celtic CD of fiddle music, “Parallel Lines,” with her sister.
When did you begin playing the fiddle and what attracted you to the instrument?
“I began to play the violin in kindergarten. There was a demonstration at school and an invitation to enroll in free Suzuki violin lessons. They gave the kids a flyer to take home. My mom said that she was amazed that I gave her the paper when I got home from school. The musicians made a real impression on me. Soon after, we went to a small fiddle contest, not far from our home. I loved the music and met a young fiddler (Craig Eastman, who plays with Steve Martin’s band The Steep Canyon Rangers) who lived only a few houses away from me. I started going over to his house and he taught me tunes by ear in his living room.”
Do you recall your first competition?
“I don’t recall my first contest, however when I did compete, it was a very positive experience. There was a gentleman who ran many events named Wynn Fay. He’d give any child who competed a ribbon and a dollar! I thought that was pretty terrific.”
What brought you to Northern New York?
“I married a Winthrop boy.” (Joel Foisy, chairman of SUNY Potsdam’s math department).
What’s the hardest thing to learn about playing a fiddle?
“I took to the instrument pretty naturally. It just made sense to me. As far as teaching it to others, I struggle most with my students’ posture. In the violin world, there are certain standards, ways to hold the instrument to achieve the best sound, to minimize body strain, etc. And these are good standards. But fiddlers are traditionally self-taught and pride themselves on that. They can “figure out” how to get the sound they want without the same attention to “looks” as the classical folks.
I’ve decided to teach beginning fiddlers with the classical posture approach, but if I have a student who has made it clear that this posture stuff is a deal breaker, I just roll with it. Any way the music comes out is to be honored.”
Has interest in lessons from the public held steady over the years?
“I have never had to advertise for students, ever. There is a lot of interest generated by word of mouth. Lots of people want to learn to play fiddle music. Who wouldn’t!? It is so fun. You can play for your own enjoyment or make it a social thing by jamming with friends. Barb Heller (host of North Country Public Radio’s “String Fever”) and I host first Friday of the month jams at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, in Canton.”
You teach, partially, by ear. How is that done?
“There are many ways to get a fiddle tune from your ear to your fingers. Reading music, reading tablature (a method of using finger numbers often used by folk musicians) and learning a tune by ear. I want my players to be able to learn tunes lots of different ways. To teach by ear, I make sure the student can hum the tune. (I make a CD of standard repertoire tunes for them to listen to.) Once they ‘know’ the tune, I simply break it down for them. We sit across from each other (sitting is a treat, since I mostly teach them standing). I play a phrase, they try to play it back. I keep adding on more notes until they can play along. It’s very freeing not to need music. Just listen and play. There is a real connection between the musicians when I teach by ear.”
Is there a difference between playing the violin and the “fiddle”?
“The fiddle and the violin are the same instrument, the biggest difference is in the music. More subtle but important differences are in the players preferences and focus. Fiddlers tend to prefer to make their own instrument repairs, use louder strings, hold their instrument in a relaxed manner and they focus on rhythm and timing, danceability and making a tune ‘their own’ through ornamentation and variations.”
Your plaque has been added to the wall at the hall of fame. What does that honor mean for you?
“It feels pretty nice to be recognized for loving what I do. That doesn’t happen every day and it makes you stop and feel thankful for what you’ve dedicated your life to sharing. Many times, when people think of traditions, they look to the older generation and in my tradition, many male fiddle players. I’ve been playing the fiddle for almost 40 years and it is nice to be thought of as important. I’ve been to so many events at the Fiddlers Hall of Fame in Osceola since I was a girl and have read the names on that wall many times. It was nice to see my name on the wall with friends and fiddle heroes of mine.”
If you were stranded on an island and had to bring one CD, what would it be?
“This makes me laugh! You could ask any one of my students this question and they would know the answer. It would definitely be “The Best of Fiddle Fever.” It’s an outstanding album of triple fiddle harmony. Starting at about the age of 10, I’d to listen to all of the harmony parts, write them out and give them to my friends to play in our band. I learned most of what I know by eating that record for breakfast every day. I love it. Gotta go listen to it right now.”
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