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Fiddling:  not forgotten in South East Saskatchewan:

Submitted by Michele Amy, Founder of Kenosee Lake Kitchen Party

Carlyle, 2001: fiddling was all but extinct in the South East corner of the province.  A few fiddlers still made the rounds, (foremost of these was Fred Easton) but there were not many, nor was there much of an audience remaining. 

Carlyle of  2016, where there are now over two-hundred traditional fiddle players in the  immediate area, large audiences, and the S.E corner has become  a tour stop for some of Canada’s best professional fiddle groups. How did this happen?  I suppose with anything, hind-sight is 20/20, and we can usually trace things back to a few pivotal moments.  I like to call it “The Power of One”.

Here is the story of the Kenosee Lake Kitchen Party, and fiddling in S.E. Saskatchewan.

Canmore Folk Festival, 2001; I leapt to my feet in an enthusiastic  standing ovation, only to look around me and discover to my chagrin  that on the giant field of the festival, I was the only one standing  and whooping at the end of April Verch’s fiddle performance.

I suppose that this was the beginning.  Something in me heard that traditional fiddle music and responded with such a strong visceral memory from somewhere so deep in my subconscious that I could not shake it, even though I tried.

My daughter, Gillian Maher, responded  to the music as well, and after the show, she asked if  Will and I would buy her a fiddle.  She was only 8 at the time, and I suppose it’s revealing that I went out and bought her a full sized instrument ($100 from a  newspaper ad in Kelowna), because I just didn’t know any better. 

I look back now and chuckle at the really awful, and really huge instrument that I bought, and how (as you could expect) she played it one or two times before it went into the closet. And that’s where it stayed until one fateful day at the Carlyle Swimming pool the following summer, when I was sitting at the “pool-end fundraiser” (a goldfish swim with air bands, if I recall correctly) with some pals, Lori Brown, Wendy Bax, and Linda Coffey, and we were chatting about random things, and the “violin in the closet” came up.

During the conversation, we all realized that we each had a desire to play the instrument, but had no idea how to begin. Lori Brown, being quite a mover and shaker, bought a fiddle from Swap shop, and then found a woman near Arcola who had taken lessons as a child, and convinced her to teach us all a few things – and that was another beginning.

We learned the basic tuning, basic technique, and how to read music for the violin.  This was very useful for getting us started, but not very useful for progressing.  Then our “teacher” moved quite suddenly and it was back to square one.

A Musical Quest:

By now, Lori and I were on quite a journey together. As two pianists, we both understood music, but squeaking music out of this fiddle was something totally different. We bought many books and tried to learn from those with limited success. (This was “Pre-You-tube” days, remember!)  Then one fateful day, we attended a  Fantasy Fiddler concert in Kisbey. This was a young performing troupe of fiddle players, and were we ever impressed!!  Afterwards, we grilled Brian Granger (the coach of the players) for any tips on playing or music. Then we bought the Cd’s… our  very first ones!

Later that weekend I went home and learned my first fiddle tune. It took me about 5 hours.  I remember that it was a Sunday, and I was supposed to be marking papers, but I put that Fantasy Fiddler  Cd on the player, and just kept rewinding it until I sort of got the tune. It was “Chase me Charlie”, and I was sooo proud of myself for figuring it out. 

I listened to all the tunes on those Cd’s over and over again. I bought more  books and tried to learn from them. While I could sort of play the notes,  I had no idea  how the tunes were supposed to sound.

The Influence of Fred Easton:

Shortly after, I read in the paper that Cannington Manor was having some entertainment for the long weekend, and that it involved local fiddlers. I was so excited, and I drove up by myself and parked my chair in front of the portable stage and was entranced by the fiddling of Fred Easton.

When he asked the crowd for any requests, my voice rang out time and again for tune after tune.  At one point, he stopped playing and asked “What does a young girl like you know about these old tunes?”  I really liked the part about the “young girl” as I was pushing 37 at the time.

But Fred took me under his wing, and invited me (and Lori) to a jam session he was having at Kenosee Lake. He invited us to play our very few and very awful tunes, complimenting us extensively.  What a treat. He really took us under his guidance,  inviting us to various events, both to listen and to squeak out our tunes.

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In loving memory of Fred Easton and the musical fire that rages through Kenosee thanks to his kindness and talent.

We carried on like this for awhile, trying to learn on our own, and jamming with the gracious Fred upon occasion, when at then end of the summer, I ran into a lady from Moosomin at one of these events. Theresa McLeod told Lori and I about this event called “The Emma Lake Fiddle Camp”. I had never heard of anything like that before, so I got all of the information, and the following year, I traveled to Emma Lake to attend. It was a looooong drive, but worth every hour on the road.


“This tune [Memories of Emma] was written by Calvin Vollrath, in honour of the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp. Many of us fiddlers got our first introduction to the world of fiddle camps via this camp, and it was truly a very special place.” – Patti Kusturok

The Emma Lake Fiddle Camp:

And that’s how it was that in 2003, I spent 5 heavenly  days in the Northern forests with some of Canada’s best fiddlers. Everyone was so welcoming and accepting of the new and rookie player that I was that they offered additional advice and tutoring, and commiseration on the frustrating journey.  My teacher, Randy Foster, was a great guy, but over the first three days, I had visions of bashing him over the head with my fiddle, as my frustration level climbed and climbed, and I just didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Until one day by the outdoor bathrooms I suddenly HEARD.  I heard the music and I knew what to do!  I quickly turned into a great annoyance as I would run up to players and ask them to play something, and then I’d play it back to them and laugh maniacally in glee.  I was firmly hooked, addicted and pretty obsessive! I had learned to learn in the traditional way, and what a powerful tool that was to become.

My family knows that when I returned from that first week of camp, there was no turning back.  All I seemed to do in all of my free time was learn tunes, jam with Fred, learn more tunes; hours and hours and hours of playing.  The only CD’s in my van  and my living room CD player were fiddle CD’s (In fact, one time in Regina, my vehicle was broken into, and my CD’s were rifled through, but nothing was taken!! Hahah) 

My husband, Will Elliott, was very long-suffering, enduring  this excessive fiddle music, and he  even encouraged me to spend time and money on my newfound passion.

So the next year, I went back to Emma Lake  Fiddle camp, but this time for two weeks. And I took my youngest daughter, Gillian with me for one of them…. To study piano accompaniment. Then we were both hooked. We were hooked on the people, the culture, the music, the welcoming  and collaborative environment, the total experience; we had discovered  a special family of like-minded musicians and we revelled in the inclusiveness.

Then Fred Easton encouraged me to attend a fiddle contest in Weyburn. I still don’t know what he saw in me, as I felt that I was  still a seriously rookie player, but I went with him. This is where I met the folks from the Saskatchewan Fiddlers Association.

Again, I discovered an  atmosphere  that was welcoming, and  people who were so inclusive and welcoming  that the lure of the music and culture continued to hook me in. (I was to later become the President of the Sask Fiddlers Association, but that’s another story.)

Fiddle Teacher? Really?

It was while I was preparing for another contest that something really weird happened.  I  had decided to practice outside on my deck to spare my family  (who was watching T.V. inside) from yet MORE fiddle music.  Then, the doorbell rang.

Frankly, living in Carlyle, I don’t think any of us realized that we even HAD a doorbell, so there was some scrambling before we determined that someone was standing at our front door.

It was a new neighbor – an RCMP member who had recently bought the house a few doors down from us. He had a young daughter who had been taking fiddle lessons in Regina, and when they moved to Carlyle, they despaired of finding her a teacher, until he was in HIS yard, and heard fiddle music. He conducted a “door to door” until he discovered the source. With some convincing, Constable Dalton  persuaded me to take Meghan on as a fiddle student.

I am a firm believer in the adage that it is not “the years that you have been playing, but the hours on your instrument” and though I had not been playing for many years, I had been playing many hundreds (possibly thousands) of hours.  Compounded with this was the reality that I had my B.Ed with a minor in music, had been a high-school  English teacher for 18 years, and I also had achieved all of my Royal Conservatory exams in classical piano (through grade X). 

Well, the acceptance of one student sort of led to another, and before I knew it, I had a full slate of fiddle students, in addition to my full time job teaching at the high-school.  Their ages ranged from 5 years to 82years, and I had discovered a true passion.

Over the next couple of years, I tried to convince my students to attend the Emma Lake fiddle camp with me (only by now it had moved to Arlington Beach). But it was just too much of a drive for most families. Then I had the brain-wave; if my students would not GO to fiddle camp, maybe I could bring the camp to them.

The First Kenosee Lake Kitchen Party:

So, with my husband on board as a great supporter, and my friend Fr. David Banga (who happened to have access to a fantastic camp facility at Kenosee Lake  that we could utilize) I phoned up some of my “fiddle friends” – some of the best fiddlers  and musicians in Canada-  that I had met through the Emma Lake camp, and sort of, well, convinced them to help me out!   A little arm-twisting was involved.

Will and I were under-writing the finances of the whole camp  personally, so I could not pay them much, but out of friendship and a desire to “give back” they agreed to come to Kenosee for the first “Kenosee Lake Kitchen party” in August of 2006.

That first, year, we taught only fiddle, guitar and piano.  We hosted about 50 students.  John Arcand, J.J. Guy, Lucas Welsh, Shamma Sabir, Karrnnel, Dale Amyotte, Trent Bruner, Shannon Shakotko, Ray Bell, Anthony Kelly, and Anthony Bzdell,  came to help me out (teaching at a fraction of their usual rates!) and though the attendance was small, it was a great affair.  Most of my fiddle students attended the camp, and I was able to introduce them to truly great teachers, players and the amazingly collaborative experience that had first attracted me at Emma Lake Fiddle camp.

Fr. Banga, who had NO idea  that first year what I was trying to accomplish, but who was just such a good friend that he said he would help, actually double booked the facility (to my great annoyance). However, he provided great food (as usual) great personality and heart and by the end of the camp, turned into the greatest fan and supporter of our project. He became  (and will forever remain) the “heart” of the Kitchen Party.  And he never double-booked the camp again!

The Nightly concerts were fantastic, and the local crowds grew each night as word got around about the quality of musicians who were playing in concerts each night. They came from far and wide to hear the music, and to participate in the dancing and frivolity.

So how did it work that year? Well, we had lessons during the daytime, and at 4pm we opened the campus for jam sessions and invited other local musicians. Then each of the first three nights,  we had a concert featuring some of the instructors.

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Tim Chaisson, Gillian Maher & Daniel Koulack and Koady Chaisson

On the fourth night, we had a show that we called “The Pig n Whistle” in honour of a local event which had taken place in Manor for many years. This was a sort of collaborative show that featured the students.  And on the last night, we featured a student concert.  Each night we also had square dancing in the mess hall, as well as a nightly campfire.  It was a  slice of heaven.

Except for altering the “Pig n Whistle” we have essentially kept the format for the past 8  years. We have added an additional week to our yearly roster, as we could not keep up with attendance, and additional instruments as word continued to spread about the great opportunities for learning and collaboration.

Currently, the Kenosee Lake Kitchen Party (KLKP) runs for two weeks each summer,( In August)  and hosts about 120 musicians each week (for a total of 240 each year). We have added banjo,  and mandolin to the roster of traditional instruments that we teach.

In 2013, we also added a vocal and cello component to reflect the real musical evolution occurring in the SE. SK. area,  and  we continue to create sponsorship programs to help break down any financial barriers that may stop families from attending the camp.  Will and I continue to under-write the event personally, but with contributions to our scholarship fund, we are able to keep it all affordable and accessible.

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Eric Wright and his cello class 2014

We attract large numbers of spectators to our evening concerts,  and have been expanding the audience base by exposing our communities to spectacular talent and top-notch entertainment events.

KLKP: A family Affair:

The KLKP remains a family affair.  I plan and run the camp and organize and hire the musicians,  create the schedule and tweak the format. I have specific requirements for hiring, because we are not just creating a music camp: we are creating a musical experience with collaboration and cooperation at its heart.   

Will Elliott (my husband) runs all the tech, sound, recording engineering and facilities.  Our great friends, Joan Bue and Shannon Klatt, work with us to promote and host at the event. Other friends assist in ways too many to mention. 

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Brienne, Joan, Shannon, Michele & Will

Our oldest daughters, Brienne and Sh’vaun Maher work in rotation  as administration, promotion, web design and graphic designers (when their professional jobs allow)

Our youngest daughter, Gillian Maher, who was originally responsible for the “purchasing of the fiddle”, finally  (at 12 years of age) decided to take “lessons” from her mom, and there was no turning back! Having been exposed to the music for years, as well as being immersed in  the music of some of the greatest players in her immediate social circle, she just took off, and within 4 years, was being invited to study fiddle in Ireland with Teresa Burke, a reputable Irish player!  Gillian  spent her grade 12 year in Saskatoon  in order to receive advanced fiddle  training, and to play with the Saskatoon Youth Orchestra as well as  the Fiddle Orchestra . Now, at 23 years,  she returns to the KLKP as a fiddle teacher and has become a valuable member of the elite fiddle community in Canada.

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Gillian and her first ever class at KLKP

Michele’s Fiddle Studio:

As a professional teacher, I became equally obsessive over the quality of fiddle and music instruction, applying the skills and strategies learned over many years of teaching.   To better facilitate my own teaching and  the learning of my own students, I have studied the methods  some of Canada’s best teachers: Gordon Stobbe, Natalie MacMaster, Calvin Vollrath, Troy MacGIllivray. I have traveled overseas to observe the cultural components of fiddling in Irish culture, and I have integrated my research into my teaching practice.

From my experiences, both as a learner and as a teacher,  I wrote and published  a fiddle instructional series titled “Just Fiddling Around” and had it professionally recorded. I also created a teacher manual to accompany this 4 book set, which is now being carried in music stores across Canada, and I conduct teacher workshops to better assist players in becoming quality teachers as well.

My personal fiddle studio continues to expand, and with the additions of school programs at White Bear Education Complex (2009 – 2012) and Bellegarde school(2012–13) ,  there are now  well over 200 fiddlers in the local area who can capably play a roster of tunes.

Students who started lessons with me several years ago have now become quite advanced  players themselves, which has created a new opportunity in the S.E. area.

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Michele and the instructors who helped workshop Gordon Stobbe’s “Fiddle History of Canada” for her fiddle studio (all of whom have attended or instructed at KLKP!)

 Our Move to Forget:

In 2011, Will and I built a house in Forget, and moved away from Carlyle, but our home  continues to nurture the musical evolution of the  S. E. area. We host 4 – 8 professional house concerts in our home each year. (Sometimes in the Theatre in Carlyle as well) 

My music studio is now efficiently set up with its own entrance, making it easier to continue to teach a full fiddle studio and group/orchestra lessons. 

We have become part of the musical hive in Forget, which boasts 9 working musicians, 5 music teachers who teach guitar, fiddle, piano, voice and banjo  and bass lessons. Forget boasts two performance venues (The Happy Nun and our home – The Big Red House .) , monthly open mic sessions , regular weekly jam sessions, yearly banjo clinics and outdoor festivals. And we’re just getting started!

The Kenosee Lake Kitchen Party continues to expand, both in scope and prominence in Canada. Last year, we were the largest traditional fiddle camp in Canada, hired the most professional teachers in one week, and have been the focus of several CBC documentary programs, recordings and feature articles on a National level.

The Power of One:

All things begin with the power of one: One pivotal performance;  the one person who takes another under a wing to nurture and encourage (Fred Easton) , the one pivotal moment, the one big idea, the one decision to act – to say YES – instead of turn away.

And the rest becomes history.