New U.S. Junior National Scottish Fiddler Champion Owen Kennedy is among the musical performers at the Fall Foliage Festival Oct. 9 and 10 at Boothbay Railway Village Museum. He’ll be joined by National Scottish Fiddler Champion Seán Heely of Virginia, a teacher and friend.
Kennedy, 16, competed for the title on Zoom, rather than at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, due to ongoing COVID concerns. His winning set was composed of “Sitting on the Stern of the Boat” (air) and “The Conundrum,” “The Iron Man” and “The Gladstone” (MSR). Kennedy qualified for the Sept. 11 event by placing first in the Junior Division of the 2021 Ohio Scottish Games and Festival of Arts championship in late June; the Scottish FIRE qualifier judges gave him a recommendation.
Kennedy performed at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in the fall of 2018, when he was 10; and Boothbay Harbor Windjammer Days Festival, Boothbay Harbor Fest, and Southport Yacht Club Art Show, all in 2019.
Heely is a faculty member of Acadia Traditional School of Music and Arts, Fiddle Hell Festival, and Potomac Fiddle Retreat. Heely is also an adjunct teacher at American University.
Kennedy met Heely at Acadia Traditional in 2019, but had to leave early for the Windjammer Days gig. Last year, Acadia Traditional couldn’t hold the annual summer camps, so scholarships went to some music students, including young fiddlers who were matched up with the instructors. Kennedy received a scholarship and could choose his instructor.
“I chose Seán because I like Scottish style and how he plays it,” Kennedy said. “His tone, energy and different ornaments and variations he does.”
Ornaments are the different things you can do to notes, triplets, rolls, flicks, and left-hand burls.
Kennedy started out studying the violin, Suzuki classical program, at 4. At 7, he heard Ellen Gawler’s youth musicians, Pineland Fiddlers. His mom, Christina Kennedy, said he was excited to learn how to play both, and did so until he turned 15 and decided to transition to Scottish fiddle.
Kennedy believes he was meant to play this genre, but he still likes to play Cape Breton style, Maine Maritime style, Celtic and Irish.
“Maine is a melting pot of different styles,” said the Winthrop native. “Maine Maritime and New England style – a mix of Irish, Cape Breton; contra style, some bluegrass.”
Christina Kennedy can clearly recall her son’s first performance, at 7, with Pineland Fiddlers in Carthage. “He was just glowing on that stage. He worked so hard. He was so invested in learning these tunes. From a parent’s perspective, my antenna went up and I knew I had to make this available to him.”
In addition to Gawler and Heely, Kennedy has studied with Betsy Kobayashi; Maine Folque Co-op and has played duets with Auburn fiddler Josh White. As a home-shooled student, he’s been able to travel to Scotland and Cape Breton for workshops/music camps, in addition to those held in Maine. In 2019, he attended Shetland Folk Frenzy in the Shetland Isles where he played several gigs with Pineland Fiddlers. Since then, Kennedy has added a Shetland set to his shows.
“It (all) takes a lot of practice and a lot of muscle memory,” he said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I don’t feel like practicing … but my mom makes me. I usually know where I want my fingers to go but they don’t always want to cooperate! I learn tunes from sheet music as well as by ear. I found learning by ear helps more than sheet music, because the music is ingrained in my mind and my fingers ...”
“What I see is he learns by ear, sheet music, and that other source (the zone),” his mother interjected. “And then, instead of listening and playing, or reading sheet music and playing, he’s internalizing it playing with his brain and fingers, but what ends up happening is it just starts going right into his fingers. Then his brain doesn’t have to focus on the music, he can just watch the audience and interact. And that’s what people are seeing.”
A few days before returning to Boothbay, Kennedy will be the opening act for Natalie Haas and Alasdair Fraser – at their request, in Colchester, Vermont on Oct. 2; then on Oct. 17, he is the guest artist at the Down East Singers event in Camden.
Kennedy and Heely will entertain at the Fall Foliage Festival on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 1 p.m. at Boothbay Railway Village Museum, 586 Wiscasset Road/Route 27 in Boothbay.
“It’s been really fun and a great experience traveling, and playing with other people,” Kennedy said. “I feel the energy from my fiddle more when I’m playing for an audience and with someone else … I just let the music go.”