Two years ago, in Sept. 2015, Porchak entered the 44th annual U.S. Grand Master Fiddle Championship in Nashville on the spur of the moment when North Carolina’s Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival, at which she was scheduled to perform with the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band, was cancelled due to bad weather. She had previously competed in the championship four times, twice placing as high as sixth, but her hasty decision to enter the 2015 contest left her little time to prepare. “I shocked myself, because I didn’t think I’d make the top 10,” Porchak said of her surprise win, which allowed her to serve as a judge for the 2016 competition and perform at the Grand Ole Opry, fulfilling a longstanding dream.
Another longstanding dream came true in 2016 when she signed up for the first time to compete in the counterpart top fiddle championship in her home country of Canada. “It was my lifetime goal to compete in the Canadian Grand Masters, just like it was to compete in the American Grand Masters, and I learned a lot that first year,” the Woodstock, Ontario, native says. “I thought I definitely would like to come back if I was given the invitation, and I was.”
Just as when she won the American competition, Porchak had very little time to prepare for her second appearance at the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle Championship, which was held in Ville de Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec, in late August of this year.aynsley
“I went up there and I played some of what I learned down here,” she says. “I played some bluegrass, I played some swing, I played some East Coast-style stuff, and for some reason, it just worked out that the judges liked it! It was a real thrill for me, because I had grown up listening to the Canadian Grand Masters recordings that they put out every year, thinking, ‘I would love to do that someday.’ It means a lot to me. I never, ever would have expected to win that.
“When I won the contest, I was informed that I was the first person ever to win the American and the Canadian Grand Masters fiddling championships, and it took me quite a while to process. I still feel so blessed and honored to be the first person to do that. It makes me super-thrilled, too, to (join) all the people in whose footsteps I’ve followed and listened to their music over the years. I had people congratulating me who I’ve respected for many years.”
Porchak, who began taking fiddle lessons at age 9 and started entering contests not long afterward, came to ETSU as a freshman in 2013 after a chance meeting with Dan Boner, director of Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies in ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies, when she was in Nashville with her parents for a competition. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies after completing her bachelor’s degree this summer with a double-major in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies and English. And, Porchak wants to put her knowledge in both of those areas to use.
“I would like to use both my Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies degree and my English degree to hopefully write some books and articles on the music,” she says, “because I do feel there’s a gap in the scholarship of bluegrass, old time, country and Celtic music right now. I’m finding there are a lot of textbooks that are rapidly growing out-of-date, and they’re not including information on the current states of the genres of music that we’re studying. I see an opportunity here that I would like to ultimately help with, because I’m passionate about the music, and I’m also passionate about writing. If there’s a way that I’m led to combine the two, I would love to.”
Porchak is on her way toward that. She is currently serving as a graduate assistant for Dr. Nate Olson in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies, and the two are working on what she describes as a sort of “how-to” book on American contest-style fiddling. She also hopes to begin working soon on academic papers.
In the meantime, Porchak is maintaining a busy schedule as a performer. She is once again playing fiddle with the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band, and occasionally fills in on some country gigs. She also plays in Atlantic North, a Celtic Band comprised of faculty and students in the Celtic music section of the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program. This band recently returned from a two-week tour of Scotland, where members played in festivals and promoted the release of their self-titled first EP.
“I’m busier than ever – that’s three bands I’m playing in right now,” Porchak says. “I really enjoy it, and I love playing all those different styles of music.
“In the future, I’m not real sure where my footprints will lead,” she continues. “I just know that right now, I am perfectly happy walking on the path God has led me to here. I love it at ETSU, and wherever I decide to go in the future, I know I will have had a great education, met great people, and had a great time at this university. I look forward to the future. Good things are in store!”