Though there are plenty of bloodline bands in the world, the Bunnell Strings are not only a family five-piece ensemble of double bass, cello, viola, and two violins, but the bonds that tie them together are much stronger than the average. Siblings—Keren, 25 years old; Kimberly, 23; Corrie, 22; Cara, 20, and Ross, 19—lost both of their parents, their father to skin cancer in 2007 and their mother of colon cancer three years later.
The combined experiences of growing up doing (literally) everything together and the need to unite when their parents passed, makes this group wise beyond their years, a maturity that shines through in the music. The Bunnells have lived in San Diego, California, since 1994, but relocated frequently prior to that as their father, Jim, was an officer in the Navy.
Each child started playing music at around the age of six, but gravitated toward their respective instruments on their own. Keren had large hands, perfect for viola. Kimberly, who wanted to step away from the shadow of her older sister, took up cello. Corrie, also the arranger and writer of the group, and Cara stuck close to violin, while Ross, who naturally wanted to set himself apart from his older sisters, chose the double bass.
“Our mom said many times that she wanted our childhood to be so different from hers,” Kimberly says. “She grew up in a troubled home with a step-mom and an alcoholic father who were abusive to their children. She ran away from that home at age 16 with no direction in her life. She wanted us to have something that we could learn dedication and discipline from and carry with us into our adulthood, either as a career or just for personal enrichment.”
Each sibling also recalls when music changed from being another chore to something they loved doing. “It took me a while to realize that I actually loved playing music,” Corrie says. “But when I did, in my late teens, music became so, so important to me and performing was my favorite thing in the world.”
The children were home-schooled, but also took classes at a local community college when they entered high school. Today, in addition to practicing and performing together, they also live and attend school together. All of them attend San Diego State University in areas of study that are across the board. For Keren, it’s accounting; Kimberly studies music performance and public administration; Corrie is learning music composition; Cara is majoring in journalism and media studies; while Ross studies political science and management information systems.
Living, working, and studying together may sound like an overload for some families, but these siblings agree that it’s been the norm for their entire lives and something they appreciate and treasure.
Kimberly says she cannot think of one negative effect of growing up doing everything with her siblings. “It brought us close and we remain each other’s best friends to this day,” she says. “We learned how to forgive each other quickly, and not hold grudges. We might be upset about something and then the next second we’re just having a good time and laughing. If we hadn’t grown up that way, I doubt we would get along well enough to practice, perform, and tour together.”
Keren also values the advantages togetherness affords them, but recognizes the challenges of their situation. “The best benefit of this is that we accomplish so much more when we work as a team,” she says. “I would say the biggest challenge is creating my own unique identity. Individual opinions, ideas, or talents can sometimes be overridden or ignored. It’s hard to think independently of each other because we have always thought things out together.”
When it comes to music, the siblings maintain their personalities and niches in the group. Something they all agree happened organically.
“Our roles in the group came very naturally,” Kimberly says. “Corrie writes the music and is a natural born leader, so she runs the practice sessions and is who we look to for direction during our concerts. Everyone’s niche in the group is different and sometimes we try to mix up the roles a bit, but it just doesn’t work as well, and we fall back into what we do best within the group.”
These personalities also come to light in the music as the siblings weave their melodies around one another, each stepping forward and back within the music, leaving space for one another. Just as vocal harmonies among family members are distinct, so are the voices of their strings when they play together.
Corrie arranges a variety of music for the group, from classical to modern. They perform their versions with youth and energy, without sacrificing an ounce of precision. The Bunnells’ success is already taking them places, including their first European tour to Norway this summer, as well as acclaim on television and radio, and in various publications throughout the US.
The group is also involved in youth outreach hoping to inspire children to take up musical instruments, and to seek studies beyond what is offered in school. “We don’t have a lot of daytime hours available,” Keren explains. “However, when we are able, we go to elementary and middle schools in lower income areas and bring string music to the kids. We teach them simple rhythms, how to identify each string instrument, and let them have an opportunity to try playing a string instrument.” After graduation they will have more time for these programs, she says.
The Bunnell’s are talkative and bright, until it comes to their parents. They still find it difficult to discuss the grief they had to face at such young ages. “Sadness creeps over me when I see my friends take their moms out for lunch, ask their dads for advice in their careers, or if they do not realize how special time with their parents is and really appreciate it,” Kimberly says. “The loss of my parents taught me so much about what is important in life—what to hold onto and what to let go of. Our happiness is not dictated by the trials we have gone through in life and no matter what we face, our happiness and joy through God will help us get through it.”
Corrie adds, “Even though you may think you went through something so tough, there is always someone out there who is going through something much worse than what we have experienced. When our parents died, we grew so much closer together. And now, being on stage together and making music is such a special experience.”
Though music has gotten them through some difficult times, the siblings realize the musical path they’re on might not be the one they’ll stick with forever. A year ago they agreed to keep the family band together for at least three years and then evaluate where they are in life and where they want to go. With their varying subjects of study, and Keren and Kimberly about to get married, they realize their lives and ambitions may change.
“Ultimately, we would like to make music our career and continue to play together for many more years,” Keren says. “However, if it becomes obvious that this is not the best career for the five of us, we each individually have a plan B, and we will move on.”
Corrie is simpler in her response, “I’m taking it one day, one step, at a time.”