Music without borders

The Thurber brothers take their passion for the violin around the globe.

Debbie Kane
January 24, 2019
Dacha (left) and Sava Thurber have been playing violin since the age of 3.

Dacha and Sava Thurber have each been playing violin since they were 3 years old.

For Dacha ’20 and Sava Thurber ’22, playing violin is as much about connection — between themselves and with others — as it is about making music.

Both learned violin before entering elementary school; they’ve played ever since, often together, and demonstrate an easy camaraderie in addition to tremendous talent. The Thurbers have played for audiences across northern New England; now, they’re sharing their love of music with people around the world. A year ago, they donated musical instruments to elementary students at a school and orphanage in Haiti, and taught the children how to play recorder. During their recent holiday break, they donated musical instruments to a charity in Belgrade, Serbia.

“It’s exciting to see the impact music has on others,” says Dacha. “We’re lucky to have grown up with the opportunity to learn music and to be in the position to share it.”

A special connection

Dacha and Sava are close. In conversation, they sometimes finish each other’s sentences and their performances together reflect a similar chemistry. They grew up surrounded by music. Their mother, who is Serbian, is a pianist. Dacha discovered violin after hearing a family friend practice during a visit to the Thurbers’ Exeter, New Hampshire, home. “I loved it,” says Dacha, who was 3 ½ at the time (not to be outdone, Sava later picked up the violin at the same age). The brothers played other instruments in middle school — Dacha saxophone and Sava clarinet — but violin remains their favorite. “I love that we play the same instrument because we can learn from each other,” says Dacha. Sava agrees. “I feel incredibly honored to be his brother and violin-best-friend for life,” he says.

Busking and non sibi

The Thurbers also have a strong sense of giving. “We feel it’s a responsibility to spread music and share the joy with others,” says Dacha. So, when their grandfather, a retired physician, suggested that they accompany him to Haiti to teach music at an elementary school near the medical clinic where he volunteers, they jumped at the opportunity.

Through busking, the brothers raised enough money to purchase recorders and percussion instruments (with the help of Harmony Music in Redmond, Washington) and secured donations of soccer balls and footballs (with support from YMCA Camp Belknap). They brought the assortment with them to Gressier, a rural community on the south of Haiti, about 13 miles from the capital, Port-au-Prince. Dacha and Sava stayed in rooms near the medical clinic where their grandfather worked. Every day for a week, they walked to a nearby elementary school and orphanage, where they captivated the attention of 150 K-5th grade students by teaching them how to play recorder.

The Thurbers’ first day in the school was a day of discovery for themselves and the students. “Aside from a few volunteers at the health clinic, we were the only people there with white skin,” says Dacha. “When we walked into the classroom that day, all the kids came up to us to feel our skin.” Another difference: the students didn’t speak English. Dacha and Sava taught and conversed with them in French.

None of the students had musical training, so the brothers taught them one musical note at a time. By the end of the week, students were playing basic songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Hot Cross Buns,” recognizing most of the musical notes by ear. “They hadn’t experienced anything like this before. It was crazy how quickly they picked it up,” says Sava. “They had a great attitude.”

During recess, the brothers kicked around soccer balls or tossed footballs with the students. “It was fun for us and them,” says Dacha. “It sounds cliché, but music is a universal language. They were so excited to learn the music and were really passionate about it.”

A royal welcome

Unable to return to Haiti this year because of travel safety concerns, the brothers instead travelled with their family to Belgrade over holiday break, bringing along several suitcases of musical instruments. Through a family connection, they donated the instruments to the Crown Princess Katherine Foundation benefitting Serbian children without parental care. The brothers played a private violin concert for the Crown Prince and Princess, accompanied by their mother on piano, at the Royal Palace. The Thurbers capped off their break with a trip to Moscow, where the brothers performed a recital that included works by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich for students and parents at a the Letovo School.

Back at Exeter, the brothers continue making music as members of the Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. And they’re hoping to return to Haiti next year. “It’s definitely something we want to do again,” says Sava.