You may not be familiar with the name April Verch, but if you watched the opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics you saw her in action—fiddling up a storm and step dancing while she played.
“There was a segment called ‘Fiddle Nation,’ ” says Verch, reached at her home in Pembroke in Ontario’s Ottawa Valley, where she was born and grew up. “They tried to represent the fiddling from each of the regions across Canada, but there were only seven fiddlers, so we doubled up. I was representing the Ottawa Valley and also Ontario and the Prairies in general. We came out one at a time and played a tune that represented those styles, then we ended up all playing together on ‘Maple Sugar’ by Ward Allen—which is sort of Canada’s fiddle anthem.”
What makes Ottawa Valley fiddling so strong and distinctive? Verch notes that the first settlers there were Irish, Scottish, French, German, and Polish immigrants who came to work in the lumber camps in the early 1800s. “I think their dance and music traditions were things they clung to, probably because they didn’t have much else, and in my thinking it’s what really pulled them through.”
From these mixed roots, Ottawa Valley fiddling grew and bloomed. As for the old-time music itself, Verch sees more links with New England than Appalachia. “In the New England tradition, the style is more articulated—more clean. So in the Valley, there’s an emphasis on a one-note-at-a-time, one-string-at-a-time kind of thing. There’s less of the figure-eight pattern in the bowing that you find in Appalachian tradition, where there’s also so much droning.”
Before starting on fiddle at the age of eight, Verch—who’ll visit Vancouver with bassist and banjo player Cody Walters and guitarist Hayes Griffin—was dancing in the local style. “It’s very much the same blend as the music. The step dancing would have ties to Irish hard-shoe, and some of the Scottish and French. Now we have more influences from some of the Appalachian clogging and stuff. They’re taps, not wooden shoes. The lumberjacks used to put short nails in their soles to make, like, a tap. Square dances are popular, usually with three changes—a jig, then a reel or a hoedown for the second and third. The rest of the evening would be waltzes, polkas, two-steps—not as many pattern dances as they have in Western Canada.”
Verch’s star turn is to dance while she fiddles, but she’s at a loss to explain how she does it. “My feet are another instrument, and it’s a way to interpret the melody on the fiddle. When I’m doing them separately that’s how it feels, but when I’m doing both at the same time it’s not something that’s improvised—I’ve had to work it out. I can’t think about the one or the other; to have it come out right, I have to forget about both and go on automatic pilot. It’s not something I can explain or teach, as much as I try to.”
April Verch plays the Orpheum Annex on Monday (March 16) as part of CelticFest Vancouver.