For many Maine high school students, junior year is a busy time of test-taking, studying and going on college tours.
One Mount Desert Island High School student has added something else to that full plate: a burgeoning career as an in-demand traditional fiddler.
Gus La Casse of Trenton is filling his free time this winter with practices and performances all over Maine and beyond.
On Saturday, Jan. 20, he will take his fiddle to Club Passim in Cambridge, where he is performing as part of the Boston Celtic Music Festival. He also is looking forward to gigs in the next two weeks at Paddy Murphy’s in Bangor, at Somerset Abbey in Madison, at the Airline Brewery in Ellsworth and at the Church of Universal Fellowship in Orono. He also has recently become half of the house band at the monthly Trenton contra dance, held at the Trenton Grange Hall.
That’s pretty good for a guy who hasn’t even celebrated his 17th birthday yet.
“I’m just getting lost in the music and having fun,” La Casse said this week. “It’s just dump out all your energy and play … It’s like a sport. You just go out there and play your heart out, play your game and have fun.”
La Casse, who does not lack for energy or enthusiasm in either his conversation or his music, said that he fell in love with the violin when he was in the first grade.
“I was just walking down the hall at the Trenton Elementary School and I heard the violin music coming from the music room. There was a kid in my class playing. And I thought, ‘whoa, that’s cool,’” he recalled. “I went home that night and told my parents, ‘Mom, Dad, I want a violin.’”
From there, he started to learn how to play, initially concentrating on classical music. A few years later, he fell for the rollicking, lively sounds of traditional fiddle playing just about as fast as he had fallen for the violin in the first place. La Casse’s mom had an album from the Acadian-music group Vishten, from Prince Edward Island, and asked her son to ‘have a listen’ to it one day in the car, he said.
“I did have a listen. The CD stayed in the car for nine months after,” he said. “I liked it a lot. That’s really where my interest started with [traditional] music.”
Fiddle music appealed to him because he found it less rigid than classical music.
“I find with traditional music, you get to be you,” La Casse said. “You get to play what you want to play.”
But that’s not the whole draw, he said. La Casse has strong Quebecois and Acadian roots, with three of four of his grandparents of French Canadian heritage. He plays the fiddle that used to belong to his grandfather and would like to become fluent in French, which his ancestors once spoke.
“I want to get that culture back a little,” he said.
So he was thrilled when he met Vishten fiddler Pascal Miousse through the Acadia School of Traditional Music and Arts, better known locally as the Acadia Trad School. Miousse taught him fiddle technique, and La Casse supplemented the yearly lessons with a lot of practice and learning tunes by ear. He began to write his own material, and last summer released an album with guitarist Peter Lindquist of Bar Harbor, with each musician contributing some original songs.
Lindquist, a professional musician, and La Casse met when they played incidental music for a roller derby bout held a few years ago at the Cross Center in Bangor.
“If someone wiped out, I was supposed to play ‘Wipeout’ on the guitar,” Lindquist said.
The event was memorable. But so was La Casse, who was a bright 12-year-old whose musical talents were already apparent. They kept meeting by chance through the regular gigs each had at the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor, and when La Casse asked Lindquist if he would be interested in forming a duo, the older musician said yes without hesitation.
“He was extraordinary. He was already pretty amazing,” Lindquist said. “He was also very 12. We tried to rehearse one time when he was really into soccer. If he wasn’t playing his instrument, he was juggling a soccer ball around. Constant motion.”
It’s been fun to watch as La Casse’s playing has improved over the years, Lindquist said.
“He’s got originality. He’s also got a really good vocabulary of musical ideas,” he said of the teen. “He’s got a good ear and a good memory. He’s got all kinds of ideas. And his energy is one of his strong assets. He just pumps it out there… I think Gus certainly has the talent to make it. You can’t predict who will make it [as a musician]. It’s a whole lot of luck and a lot of chemistry. But he’s an exceptional talent.”
A couple of years ago, La Casse was able to go on a performing tour of Ireland with Young Tradition Vermont, a traditional music and dance ensemble based in Burlington, Vermont.
“It was a wicked time,” the fiddler said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Down the road, La Casse would love to go to a small, liberal arts college and study languages. But he wants to be a musician forever.
“I want to be a college student by day, musician by night,” he said. “I do want to keep on playing. I want to play wherever people want to hear me.”
For more information about La Casse’s upcoming shows, please visit the website www.guslacasse.com or his Facebook page.
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