Welcome to a brand new series!
In my last post, I mentioned that I'd be wracking my brains to find something positive to write about during this insane time of unknowns and struggles. Well I've finally found it. "We Are Viable" is my new series, celebrating all the brilliant things we musicians achieve in sectors many didn't even realise we impacted. No part of our society is untouched by the hand of music and it's time we showcased it for the world to see!
What better way to celebrate music then with two sisters who have taken their music into the community to give back and help those in need. Their passion, positivity and pure joy is contagious and interviewing them this week been inspiring. It is with a very warm welcome that I introduce Angharad and Nia and their duo, String Sisters to the series.
So, could you tell us a little bit more about the work String Sisters does?
We are a Violin and Viola duo, and real life sisters, from South Wales who have received funding and sponsorship from The Arts Council of Wales and National Lottery Good Causes to deliver interactive concerts to families and individuals that are most in need. We work with a range of audiences, including: children with additional needs, care homes, hospices, and families that have been directly affected by domestic abuse across Wales. Although we both trained classically at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, we usually play a big selection of old classics, folk songs, Disney tunes, and traditional Welsh sing-a-longs at our concerts, depending on our audience and their requests!
This year has been a real struggle for freelancers. You can sometimes feel like you're all alone inside your own head. And if we feel like that - how must it feel for those who are unable to leave the house at all? Small gestures of kindness go a long way during what’s been a very tough year, and we have found that the concerts have been a fantastic boost for us, as well as those we work with!
What was the inspiration behind your decision to form a duo and take it out into the community?
The idea of bringing live music into people's homes was an idea we had discussed before the pandemic hit. For some, getting the whole family dressed, fed and out to a concert is a battle in itself in terms of expense, timing and even pleasing everyone’s taste in the music. By delivering a concert to a family in their own living room, it removes the stress and hassle of transport, parking, snacks, timings, tickets...anything that might ordinarily deter someone from going to see a live concert in the first place. As two of five siblings, and the very fortunate recipients of free violin lessons in school, we firmly believe that the cost going to see concerts and the accessibility of the venue to cater for all should not be a factor in whether or not someone is able to hear live music.
When Covid-19 hit - it hit hard. It affected everyone, but in so many ways. For many, it has meant that they haven’t been able to leave the house and get the support they need and deserve. For the most vulnerable members of our society (such as those with underlying health conditions, disabilities, or those from isolated or protected homes) Covid-19 has made the already challenging day-to-day tasks much harder. Whilst we are all struggling with our own individual battles, this project has highlighted to us the importance of supporting those who were already in need before the pandemic. During this time, everyone has experienced a collective trauma, but by working together and helping each other we can heal together.
What importance do you think music holds for people, especially when times are tough?
Music has such a huge importance in our lives. I don't think we have ever met anyone who just didn't like music! Maybe some don't enjoy certain composers, singers, or genres (personally, we're not the biggest fans of heavy metal) but everyone seems to have a go-to song or piece that makes them feel something. We've found this especially when delivering our online concerts over the past year.
These concerts have meant something different to each participant. For some, it’s been an opportunity to express themselves, for others it’s simply enabled them to take time out to reflect. We’ve worked with a number of families and community groups, and found that our audiences have benefited from the concerts, but in very different ways! When working with one family, we met a mother who just needed ten minutes to herself. In other families, we met people that are going through a lot due to illness, and needed a way to strengthen their bond as a family; something unrelated to care-giving. We met people that simply needed a distraction from everything going on around them, and gave them something different to look forward to in their day. Furthermore, it has given us structure and something to aim towards, practice for and turn up to! Music has helped us both so much during this time.
What’s the most rewarding part of your community work?
We have really loved the variety of performing for community groups and support groups - particularly Cyfannol Women's Aid. We were incredibly humbled to hear our audience share memories, reminisce on good and bad times, and even request songs for new born babies - or their dogs! It made us feel part of a big team and allowed us to share, chat and have a gossip in amongst playing Tom Jones and other requests. It seems strange and small, but hearing applause again has been amazing too!
Another rewarding experiences has been learning Makaton (slowly and steadily) and being able to communicate and respond to those who already use it. Makaton and music work together brilliantly - putting actions to words and music is something that we are trying to incorporate more and more to make music more accessible to all. One of the children we work with, who uses Makaton and has Cerebral Palsy, has been trying to walk unaided and was very excited to show us his progress after a concert. We were overjoyed to see him conquer such a huge hurdle and then sit on his mam's lap and have a cwtch to celebrate. Another of the wonderful children that we worked with called herself the third String Sister - which we loved. We hope she won't be coming for our gigs when they are back on though!
How have you managed to keep the music alive during COVID?
We have really tried to keep the concerts as informal and participatory as possible to remove the 'stuffiness' and include as much music and chatter as our audience would like. The concerts begin with an informal catch-up - discussing how everyone is feeling and how their week has been. After that, we play a few pieces and then ask how those pieces made them feel, or take requests. This way we found that people were more likely to talk about music and perhaps go on to listen to more after the concert has ended. Not all music has to be beautiful or make you happy for some profound reason. Some of the most helpful 'music sessions' we have experienced during Covid have been playing through a whole album, or singing along very loudly (and badly) to a musical. Such small things have made all the difference to our days!
What does the future hold for String Sisters? Is there a particular project you’d love to throw yourselves into once the world gets back to normal?
Although, like most, we can't wait for the world to return to normal... at the same time, holding concerts over Zoom has been liberating for both us and our audience. As a performer it removes the pressure of the smallest things, like wearing all black and remembering a stand. For our audience, it has meant that children have accessed music outside of school time, and haven't had to be totally silent for the duration. The mute button is a godsend - everyone can eat crisps and nobody feels awkward or gets told off. It has removed some of the stigma that classical music sometimes brings with it. It's okay to listen to classical music in your dressing gown, with the camera off, whist you eat cereal. It's what we do when listening to the radio or watching TV, why should classical music be any different?!
So, when things are normal, we are going to carry on giving concerts online. We feel privileged to be invited into people’s homes virtually - and if it means we can carry on giving concerts to audiences in the comfort of our jogging bottoms - then that's a win all round!
Tune in again next fortnight as we remind ourselves of the positive impact we have in the world of education!
Until then stay safe and stay viable!