Monday, August 31, 2009

Twin fiddles at the fair

by Kelly Jo McDonnell
Contributing Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009 4:32 PM CDT
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STILLWATER — When you ask 11-year-old boys what their hobbies are, typically the answer revolves around video games or hanging out with friends.

It’s the same for 11-year-old twins Soren and Skyler Schwendeman of Stillwater, except they add one unusual aspect to the list: they’re close to being musical prodigies. The outstanding fiddle and violin players have competed at the Minnesota State Fair and other contests since they were past the toddling age.

“They almost can’t stop making music … or noise,” laughed their mother, Jill Schwendeman. “They always did walk around humming music. It’s fascinating how they sprout music ... it just comes out their ears.”

For now, they’re gearing up to compete in their age bracket in this year’s Minnesota State Fair Fiddle Contest on Aug. 29 and 30 on the Heritage Square Stage (times are from 2 to 4 p.m. each day). Their enthusiasm for the fair and the contest, which they’ve competed in for the past four or five years, is obvious.

“It’s not as much competing, as getting up there and performing for a ton of people,” said Soren. “It’s fun to be up there.”

Jill said there are wonderful contestants at the competition. “It’s a friendly, supportive community, and we hang out in this little area of the fair, and the kids are running around within 30 feet of each other,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to be real cutthroat.”

Jill remembers when Skyler was 5 and so small he had to lean way up to the microphone.

“I have to say, we’ve only been good for two to three years,” said Soren. “Last year I got fourth place …we haven’t won.”

The boys, who will be in the sixth grade this fall at St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Stillwater, have also performed at countless county and state fairs, as well as gigs at town halls, churches and weddings.

A little history

Asked how they got interested in fiddle music, the twins answer almost in unison.

“Well, me and my brother were driving in the car and mom asked, ‘Hey, do you want to get a violin?’” recalled Skyler. “Me and my brother started jumping up and down.” At the time, the boys weren’t even 5.

The classical violin lessons began, and the boys have never looked back.

Jill said she and her husband, Tiger, thought it was important to stress to their sons that they should “stick with it” for five years and see what happens. “Tiger and I didn’t want them starting and stopping things,” said Jill. “We knew this would give them good grounding.”

She said her own family background has been rooted in music.

“My brother played in a symphony, and my sister was a music therapist,” she said. “I taught K-music, children’s music and piano.”

One of her favorite stories: when the twins were around 6 or 7, they built a lemonade stand outside the house, and if folks bought a glass of lemonade they would play a tune for them on fiddles. “That was fun,” she laughed. “It drew a crowd. Sometimes they put on a CD and played to it outside.”

Both boys said they like all types of music. “Our friends think we’re the musical ones on the block,” said Soren. “They’re into the new hip hop and rapping stuff, and we like that too, but we do classical to heavy metal and rock and any new stuff ... (friends) don’t like the fiddle as much.”

They stress that they do enjoy other things. “I like to read a lot, and be with friends,” said Skyler. “I always like medieval fantasy computer games, too.” Soren said he likes to “play guitar and drums “like all day, sometimes. I like to e-mail chat, too”.

Over summer break, the boys practice once a week and take part in up to three summer music camps each. During the school year, practice is once a day. The musicians have a full-time teacher in Brian Wicklund, a well-known fiddle performer and author on American Fiddle Method.

“Both boys are super musical,” said Wicklund. “They have a spirit of play when they make music. It seems really natural for them.”

He remembered when Soren started playing guitar on his own. “The first time he brought his guitar to play an original composition for me, I was really blown away,” said Wicklund. “The kids have worked up a number of tunes and songs on their own and are really self-motivated.”

The boys talk excitedly when asked about their favorite pieces of music. “Well, I like a piece called ‘Stinky’s Blues’ … it’s actually by Brian, and we manipulated it,” said Skyler. “I actually play it in the contest. I just think it’s fun to play and nice to listen to.”

Soren said he also likes “Orange Blossom Special.” But Jill said State Fair officials won’t let contestants play it at the fiddle contest because it’s “too flashy and weird.”

Bigger venues?

While Jill loves “Prairie Home Companion,” and would like to someday see her boys at that venue, Skyler sees himself playing at Orchestra Hall. Soren said he simply enjoys fair grandstands.

Once another Minnesota State Fair contest is under their belts, what’s next for the Schwendeman twins?

“It’d be cool to have a music career,” said Soren. “I don’t know how easy that would be, shows and stuff, but I’d like to go to Juilliard (School of Music). That would be awesome.”

His brother, Skyler’s plans are slightly different: “I’ve always wanted a career with animals or technology, but I haven’t really been able to decide on a career. Designing computer games, that’s my goal. I think I’ll have something to do with music, but not as my full-time job or anything.”

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