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Sylvain Foisy, Gretchen Koehler, Brandt Kronholm and Rebecca Koehler will perform at ONNY's "American Pops" concert tonight in Potsdam and tomorrow night in Watertown.  Photo: Harold Ellingsen
Sylvain Foisy, Gretchen Koehler, Brandt Kronholm and Rebecca Koehler will perform at ONNY's "American Pops" concert tonight in Potsdam and tomorrow night in Watertown. Photo: Harold Ellingsen

Fiddling family to feature in ONNY "Pops" concerts

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The Orchestra of Northern New York presents its annual summer "American Pops" concert tonight at 7 pm in SUNY-Potsdam's Hosmer Hall, and tomorrow night at 8 pm in Watertown's Thompson Park. The concert will feature Fourth of July favorites like "Liberty Fanfare," "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and "1812 Overture."

This week's concerts will also feature fiddler Gretchen Koehler, joined by her sister, Rebecca on fiddle, brother-in-law Brandt Kronholm on guitar and son Sylvain Foisy step dancing and fiddling.

Todd Moe stopped by Gretchen's Potsdam home yesterday for music and conversation during an impromptu living room recital.

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Todd Moe
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Gretchen Koehler is the latest inductee into the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame.  She and her sister Becky have been playing violin together since childhood. She lives in Potsdam, plays in the Orchestra of Northern New York, and gives private lessons.

The upcoming ONNY concerts have many highlights, but the one that Gretchen feels most strongly about is Aaron Copland’s "Hoe-Down." This tune includes "Miss McLeod’s Reel" and "Bonaparte Retreat." During this song, Gretchen and her family will interrupt the orchestra and play the piece as a fiddle tune several times so that the audience will hear the contrast between the fiddle and the violin.

Fiddlers and violinists use the same instrument; however, they have different preferences. Fiddlers tend to want brighter strings, giving up a little bit of the sweet tone but gaining volume. Fiddlers also use a more relaxed posture. Gretchen says that she and her sister Becky are "bilingual" in both classical violin and the fiddle. For the performance, she says, “I really have to keep the sounds straight in my head.”

She said that when they played Copland from sheet music with the orchestra, she remembered the fiddle version from her childhood. When playing with the orchestra, she also had to worry about bowing with the other members and when to accentuate the notes or incorporate dynamics. “When you fiddle the tune it's okay if people have different bowing and slightly different notes—everything clicks together in that unit and it’s fine.”

Becky says that when they break out in the middle of the Copland arrangement, they need to have two fiddles ready for use, one for the orchestral part, and one for the fiddle part. Becky says, “Fiddling is a living tradition.…We’re not just going to play it the old way. We’re doing some fun, neat variations along the way as well, so hopefully we’re representing a lot of different styles.... It’s nice that fiddling is something that’s constantly evolving, but you can still play a new song and have it sound like it’s been around forever.”

Sil Foisy will be step-dancing and playing his fiddle in the concert. He has been playing fiddle since he was four, and step-dancing for two or three years. His usual step style is called automovile step dancing, which differs from traditional French step-dancing in that it takes the dancer all over the floor—you can lift your legs up. He says that it gets his energy out. The style originated in logging camps. When the loggers finished their work for the day, one of the loggers would fiddle and the others would dance.  

Gretchen says that step dancers talk about influences from clogging and tap dance and Irish dance just exactly the same as fiddlers do--Everything is very regional. In the old days when people couldn’t travel around as much you could really tell exactly where a player was from, just like an accent. Now you get people that are real excited about using all of these different styles, and then you get traditionalists who don’t want any part of melding styles. Gretchen says, “When I teach my students I think it’s really important to know the roots of your music.” She says first you need to know the older tunes and then you can play the new tunes.

Gretchen stresses the importance of really knowing the music you’re playing. People get very passionate about this music and the history behind the pieces. Therefore, musicians have to be careful that they play the music in a way that does not offend. The audience members should feel comfortable with the way the music is presented. Gretchen says that musicians should "come from an honest place."

They will be performing tonight with the Orchestra of Northern New York. Their American Pops concert starts at 7:00 pm in Hosmer Hall at SUNY Potsdam. Then they will repeat the concert tomorrow night in Watertown in Thompson Park at 8:00 pm. Pre-concert festivities in Watertown start at 7:30 pm. The orchestra is conducted by Kenneth Andrews featuring Gretchen Koehler and friends. For more information you can check out the Orchestra’s website.

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