Families often struggle to find common ground, especially Dads and their daughters but one local family has found a surprising and creative way to spend time together. SwannSong is a unique 3 piece family violin act that comprises of a Dad, Steve, and his 2 daughters, Tara and Erin. The most unusual thing about this act is that the kids were the first to take an interest in the violin with Steve following suit. Due to their growing confidence and skill as an ensemble they are expanding their performance horizons with regular appearances at local festivals and markets. Steve, Erin and Tara found the time to answer some questions about SwannSong.
What are you talking DIY Itchy Kitschy about today?
Music – specifically, the violin. Our outfit is called SwannSong – we’ve only gone by this name for about the past 18 months, when we started busking at the Hume Murray Farmers Markets on the Causeway in Wodonga and they asked us “so what’s your band name?” We got the name because, well, all our surnames are Swann, and, well, we play songs! We play a mix of classical, folk/celtic tunes and popular music.
Who are the members of SwannSong?
Steve, Erin and Tara Swann
All 3 of us play the violin. Steve is 30-something, Erin is 9 and Tara 7. Both of the girls have been playing violin since they were 3 (Steve started a bit later than that!).
What made you choose violin?
Tara: Erin and Daddy were already doing it
Erin: I don’t remember, I was only 3 when I started!
Steve: I didn’t really choose the violin: it chose me! Erin was encouraged to learn an instrument, the music teacher in the town we were living was a strings teacher, and so we started learning the violin (it just grew from there).
We first got exposed to the violin when we were living in Bright. Erin was assessed as being particularly gifted, and her teacher at the time suggested she either learn a language or an instrument to keep her brain occupied. As luck would have it, at the time there was an excellent strings teacher in town by the name of Lyndall Nevin, a wonderfully accomplished cellist who is now teaching at Canberra Girls Grammar School. She in turn introduced us to David Pietsch – a marvelous violinist who was then in Yackanandah.
David taught using what is known as the Suzuki Method. Developed in Japan by Shinichi Suzuki, the method involves total immersion in the learning of music by young children – students practice every day, listen to recordings of the pieces they are learning, and parents are heavily involved. So [I] gave it a go too, found that [I] liked it, and [we’ve] never looked back. A couple of years later, Tara joined us, and we’ve been playing together ever since. Our current teacher, based in Thurgoona is Kaori Sparks, who, being Japanese, appreciates the value of the Suzuki Method and is very supportive in our continuing efforts to work through the Suzuki repertoire.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Tara: Learning to read music, because we started learning using the Suzuki method, which encourages you to learn songs from memory – I didn’t start learning to read music for 3 years.
Erin: Playing in the Eisteddfod my first time – I was very nervous, but I did my best and managed to win some medals.
Steve: Finding the time to practice hard enough and long enough to stay one step ahead of my kids! Also being a male in a field of predominantly female musicians, as well as generally the only person over the age of 30 in the group learning an instrument (you get used to being outplayed by teenagers real quick). [I am an engineer, and didn’t have any musical background prior to taking up the violin. [I’ve] really enjoyed playing the violin – it is wonderful to have a creative outlet, something different to do at the end of the workday. It is almost meditative in a lot of ways, because when practicing you have to be right there in the moment (or you wind up with some awful awful sounds!).
Where have your performed previously?
We have performed at the Beechworth Celtic Festival, the Yackandandah Folk Festival, and the Bright Autumn Festival. We make regular appearances at local markets in and around the Border – most notably the Hume Murray Farmers Markets, which we just love. Erin and Tara are a part of their local school orchestra, have been to large festivals in Melbourne and our very own Border Music Camp, and are both age group champions at the Albury-Wodonga Eisteddfod. We also love playing for family and friends when we get the chance – Christmas time is great for this!
What has been the highlight?
Tara: Busking at the markets – I like that people come and listen to our music and they really enjoy it. Whenever we get little kids standing in front of us, we always play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and I love it when they do the hand movements!
Erin: Busking at the markets – because we get to get out and play our instruments, make people happy and get a little bit of spending money (when Dad doesn’t make us put it in the bank!)
Steve: Through music, I have gotten to spend countless enjoyable hours with my girls, both individually and as a group. I have a really good connection with them as a result, watching them develop and grow and just enjoying their company.
But the most wonderful things is the connections it’s given [me]. Whether that’s playing with others, or playing for others – [I] just love sitting there, playing away at the markets and watching someone enjoy songs, talking to people about the music. Music has a mysterious ability to bring people together, but without a doubt the best connection [I have] made through violin has been with [my] daughters. [We] spend so much time together each week – the girls practice most days, and [I] still supervise these sessions directly, so [I] get some marvelous one on one time. It gives [me] a way to talk with them about other stuff too, and [I] get to sit back and watch them stand up in front of a crowd of complete strangers and amaze them with what they can do.
(Steve adds that he was not a great one for getting up in front of crowds, even to the point of passing out at his own wedding, so is in awe of his kids ability to do so at such a tender age).
Tara: It’s exciting when you master one song and then get to start learning another new one.
Erin: I was really excited about learning brand new songs in under a week at the Border Music Camp – normally it takes me a lot longer to learn songs, so I realized I could do more than I thought.
Steve: Taking up the violin in my 30s, I have learnt that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Something I try to remember every day!
What was your first performance as a group like?
Tara: The first time we went busking together was a bit scary – because I didn’t think I was very good! But people still clapped and gave us money.
Erin: I felt a little bit uncomfortable, but I got used to it! I got a warm fuzzy feeling when people clapped (I like that feeling).
Steve: We first performed together as part of a larger group at the Yackandandah Folk Festival – the crowd was fantastic and we really had a blast! I was nervous the first time I took the girls busking, but it’s been a really good experience – people are so encouraging.
What do you think makes the violin such a special instrument?
Tara: You can make a lot of different sounds and tunes when you get your bowing right and put your fingers down in the correct spot.
Erin: No matter how small you are, you can make a sound out of it – I started when I was only 3 years old!
Steve: It’s technically very difficult to play the violin, so it takes a lot of discipline. But once you master the basics, it’s very versatile. It’s also a great instrument for busking, because it’s pretty easy to cart around. And I love how it evokes such a range of emotions in people – from dancing to folk music, through to people being reminded of childhood memories.
Tara: Mairi’s Wedding(a Celtic folk tune), because it always gets people dancing
Erin: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – when you start learning using the Suzuki method, you learn 6 different versions of Twinkle, and those 6 versions give you the basic technique for everything you learn subsequently.
Steve: Just about anything Celtic, because it is so fun to play and watch people respond to. Also music by Lindsey Stirling – someone who makes the violin look very glamorous and exciting and so removed from the traditional perception of “stuffy” classical music.
Where can people go for more information?
Do you have any performances coming up?
We perform regularly at local markets, and also special events – the best place to keep track of us is via Facebook, where we also post the odd video performance or other bits of interesting material.
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