If a family has been keeping a holiday tradition for 36 years straight, you can be pretty sure it’s something good.
But for the Boulding family — also known as Magical Strings, the Olalla-based ensemble playing dulcimers, harps, violins and more — their “Celtic Yuletide” concerts in theaters from Mount Vernon to Portland are more than just a 36-year tradition. They’re also something that has kept the family strong and close — and completely unafraid of performing.
“You could say that music developed our mental capabilities and that sort of thing,” says Geoffrey Williams, the eldest of Philip and Pam Boulding’s five children. “But what’s most important is that made us a strong, cohesive family unit. … That’s the key.”
Geoffrey has played in almost every “Celtic Yuletide” since they began in 1978. Trained folk musicians, Philip and Pam folded their children into their arrangements and compositions of Celtic tunes, encouraging singing and playing of easy parts by their fledgling instrumentalists.
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Georffrey, now 43 and a scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island, opened the first concert with a simple glockenspiel part before later taking up violin. His younger brother Brenin plays cello; then came twin brothers Morgan (who plays whistles and piano) and Marshall (harp); and finally Brittany, who made her Magical Strings debut at six months in a basket before singing and beginning the violin. Now 32, she’s concertmaster of the Northwest Sinfonietta and a busy Northwest solo, orchestral and chamber musician.
As the Boulding family grew, more instruments were added. Then came spouses: Brenin met his wife, Sara Raney, at a Yuletide concert when Raney’s Tara Academy Irish Dancers were guest artists. Morgan’s wife, Sylvia, now helps with costumes; Sara’s two sisters are also involved; and all six grandchildren have been performing since they were babies. Meanwhile, Magical Strings has toured throughout the United States, Canada, Ireland and Japan; appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion;” and recorded 20 albums on four labels.
This year, after performing in Kingston and Kent, they’ll bring “Celtic Yuletide” concerts to Tacoma, Seattle, Mount Vernon, Bellevue, Portland and Leavenworth, sharing the stage with the Tara dancers as well as fiddler Jocelyn Pettit, singer Colleen Raney, Dublin guitarist Colm MacCarthaigh and percussionist Matt Jerrell.
“I look forward to the concerts every year,” says Brittany, who will take some shows off her “Nutcracker” gig with Pacific Northwest Ballet to perform with her family. “I’m really happy to do it.”
But while the Boulding family seems as talented and contented as the famous Von Trapps, there’s a lot of work involved in putting your family on stage.
“Every night from October to December was a practice session,” says Geoffrey about his childhood. “It just seemed kind of normal to me, it’s what we did — play music. Of course we went to school, and did art and other things, but there was always music. It was plenty frustrating at times — as a kid I didn’t really appreciate why we had to play something so many times. Now I understand, and after all those years the repetition built up and has stayed with me.”
But Geoffrey and Brittany say while there was plenty of bickering, things never got to the point where anyone quit — and that, says Geoffrey, strengthened him and his family.
“The conversation and listening part helped and shaped me in a very positive direction,” he says. “I don’t know a lot of people that talk to their brother every single day, but I do. We’re all really close, get along well, and I think that has to do with music and working through those challenges.”
Another bonus, says Brittany, is that none of the Bouldings are afraid of performing — something very valuable for a professional musician.
“I’ve had the experience of being on stage since I was little, and I’m very comfortable with it,” she says. “Performing was a joy to me. Sadly, musicians spend so much time alone in their practice rooms, so we get a bit scared of performing.”
Mostly, though, growing up in a family that played music together was just a lot of fun.
“It was pretty amazing, actually, always to be surrounded by music,” Brittany says. “Christmas was one of my favorite times of the year — rehearsing together and touring, going on adventures. It was awesome, I loved it.”
And favorite tunes? Brittany’s is “The Farewell,” a sonnet set to music, written by Philip when his father died. For Geoffrey, it’s “All Through the Night.”
“There’s just something about the melody, the progressions,” he says. “At the end of the concert, that emotion, that feeling you get on stage when all the verses are sung and it’s just instruments — that’s the essence of the concert for me. It pulls everyone together.”