Sisters craft their own sound through studies

Not many students arrive to class with books and backpacks they made themselves. And then there’s Emily and Becky Shaw.

The Shaw sisters, both Don Wright Faculty of Music students, grew up with music around the house. Perhaps it was inevitable they eventually made the leap into musical academic careers.

“I think we always knew we’d be heading for music,” Emily said. “Our dad taught us guitar right up until university. He still teaches others, as well. He studied and learned to make guitars and we’ve learned what we do from him.”

They learned so well, in fact, the sisters crafted the guitars they have used for their studies at Western.

Emily, who graduates this year from Western, and will continue her studies at the University of Ottawa, has built three guitars, with another nearing completion and two more on the go.

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘What did I get myself into?’” she said, noting a minimum of 250 hours go into each guitar. “It takes a lot of time and patience, but it’s addictive once you get going. You tell yourself, ‘I can do this, I’m going to make another so I can make it better.’”

“Our dad encouraged us for sure, with the music, but he didn’t push us at all, it was something we wanted,” Becky added. “The guitar I have, I made with my dad. I knew I wanted to build my own as well. I don’t know what I thought at the beginning, but it was something I wanted to do with him.”

But wouldn’t it be easier just to buy one? Yes, the sisters admitted, but that’s not the point.

“It depends on what you’re looking at for wood,” Emily said. “If you want to build the same guitar you see in the store, you can buy that wood cheaper than what the guitar costs. But, if you look at the hours you put into it, the time and materials you use, it’s probably more expensive.”

Plus, at times, you cannot find certain guitars in just any store.

In her second year, Emily wanted to play with the faculty’s Early Music Studio, an ensemble which specializes in music from the baroque and classical periods. However, there were no period instruments – or copies of period instruments – for students to play.

Over that summer, Emily built a baroque guitar based on a design of a Rawlins, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1700. Approximately 250 hours later, she was ready to play.

Knowing you created the guitar you are playing at concerts and recitals, Becky said, makes it that more special.

“You have a different connection to the instrument when you know more about it, even if you actually don’t like everything about it,” said Becky, who recently won the Rose Bowl for the overall top performer at the London Kiwanis Music Festival. “Because you made it, you know why things aren’t sounding right with the guitar. Sometimes you need to be very specific, but you can change and adjust as you see fit to make it your own.”

Emily always keeps her eyes open for new guitar designs – and even supplies.

“I went for walk the other day and there was a junk pile,” she said. “It was a bunch of wood and I was like, ‘Is there any good wood in there?’

“I’ve tried other guitars going to festivals, but I’ve never been looking to buy someone else’s instrument, which I think is a little bit strange. It’s so much more fun doing it yourself. I love the building aspect of it.”

This story originally appeared in the May 8, 2014 edition of Western News.