‘Twas the night before the SAT, and most juniors were at home resting or cramming for the upcoming big day.
Except not junior Chardonnay Needler, who on March 10 was at a party an hour away from Sacramento.
However, Needler wasn’t there for her own entertainment – she was the entertainment.
And she wasn’t alone.
Needler, who had a cello in her left hand and a Barron’s SAT prep book in the her right, was accompanied by the other half of her band – senior violinist Lily Brown.
Brown, who’s been playing the violin for nine years, and Needler, who’s been playing the cello for six, formed their band – called East Sac Strings since they both live in East Sacramento and play string instruments – back in October.
The original idea was Needler’s.
“During one of the college meetings (in October) I realized I didn’t have any community service (activity) that stood out from the crowd,” Needler said. “So I asked (college counselor Jane) Bauman what I could do that would be more interesting. And she suggested something to do with music.”
After this meeting, Needler talked to orchestra teacher Felecia Keys about busking (street performing).
Keys has taught Brown and Needler since they were in the fifth grade orchestra.
“Chardonnay has always had a real feeling for music,” Keys said. “She’s always had beautiful vibrato and been able to express herself musically. Technically she’s very good. But she’s one of those musicians who can make you feel the music.
“Lily has always had a good tone. Even when she wasn’t technically the best, her tone just overran everything.”
After talking to Keys, Needler realized that for many reasons (such as the end of busking season and a need for a special permit), the idea of busking wouldn’t work.
So Brown and Needler formed a duo instead.
“We thought the instrumentation would sound pretty cool together,” Brown said.
East Sac Strings decided to try out performing at restaurants and bars at the recommendation of Needler’s father, Dan.
Their first venue was Porchlight Brewing Company because Needler’s father knew the owner, Heather Cardoza.
Brown and Needler sent a recording they’d made on Needler’s phone of “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles to Cardoza on Nov. 6, and she said she loved it and offered the duo their first gig during Thanksgiving break.
“We didn’t have that much music at all,” Needler said. “(So) we started rummaging through Keys’s music that no one ever uses. She had a lot of arrangements for our instrumentation.”
Once they found their arrangements, the two practiced two weekends in a row.
Surprisingly, Brown said she went into that first performance not feeling nervous at all.
“To be honest there was like nobody there,” Brown said. “It was a Sunday afternoon around 3 (p.m.). So it was kind of a trial run.”
However, this wasn’t the case for her partner.
“I was so nervous, I thought I was going to throw up,” Needler said.
“(Playing the cello) is the only thing I get nervous about. I remember people kept looking at us because we set up very conspicuously. I mean, I play the cello. I think that sentence says it all.
“I walked into the bar wheeling this thing and thinking, ‘What if we’re horrible? And what if they don’t recognize the song?’”
However, Keys, who saw Brown and Needler perform, said she never noticed any nerves.
“It was like they had no fear,” Keys said. “They seemed relaxed, which is important in an environment where people are trying to have a good time. It was great; I was so proud of them.”
Needler said she worried for nothing, and, looking back on that first gig, she especially remembers the money.
“I remember counting all our tips at the end of the night,” Needler said. “It was funny because we got all excited even though it was only $60 (between the two of us).”
Now East Sac Strings has made over $500 in around 15 gigs, ranging from Porchlight to private at-home parties to country clubs.
For the first two months the duo donated 50 percent of their earnings to the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. They later reduced the donation to 25 percent.
“We usually get $100 in tips,” Brown said.
Needler attributed the large amount to their age.
“Old people like that we’re young, and they tip us really well,” Needler said.
But it’s not just old people that love East Sac Strings.
During an engagement at Porchlight, the Strings met their “biggest fan,” a man in his twenties, according to Needler.
“It was a Saturday night, and we were playing from 6 to 9 (p.m.),” Brown said. “There was this guy who was with his girlfriend, and he kept whistling every time we started playing.”
Both Brown and Needler said that was the most memorable performance.
“This guy came up to us and kept yelling that he was the biggest fan of ours,” Needler said. “He was like, ‘Oh my god, I want to get T-shirts of you guys, and (they) can say ‘East Sac Strings’ on the back!’
“He said he was going to come back the next week to watch us play, but we never saw him again.”
Needler said another memorable time was a Christmas party at Del Paso Country Club in December.
“They gave us food, and it was really good country-club food,” Needler said. “We played tons of Christmas music too. (I remember before the gig) we asked (the party planner) David (Chavez) what music he would be interested in, and he said definitely not Celtic tunes. So we had to find a lot more music.”
Finding the perfect music continues to be a challenge for the duo.
“We are always trying to find more music,” Needler said. “Our target demographic is 40- and 50-year-olds.”
Currently the two play a variety of tunes: classic rock songs, Green Day, Coldplay, the Beatles, Imagine Dragons, “Game of Thrones” medleys, “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran and “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi.
“We just learned ‘Here Comes the Sun’ (by the Beatles), which is now my favorite,” Brown said.
Needler’s favorite is Celtic fiddle tunes.
“Lily can play so fast on those,” Needler said.
Surprisingly, many people at Porchlight have enjoyed the Celtic tunes, according to Needler.
“One time there were a bunch of women with leather jackets drinking beer,” Needler said.
“We were playing the fiddle music, and one of the ladies started clapping her hands, dancing and guessing the names of the songs we were playing. And some of them had really weird names like ‘Merrily Kiss the Quaker.’ At one point she yelled at us, ‘You got a fiddler and a nice strong bass!’”
Brown and Needler said they get a lot of comments about their instrumentation as well.
“When I think of live music, I don’t think of two high schoolers playing the violin and the cello,” Needler said.
But they both said it works.
“We really jell with each other,” Needler said.
However, East Sac Strings, whose next appearance is on Saturday, April 28, at Porchlight, will soon be breaking up as summer plans approach and Brown moves out of East Sacramento to college in the fall.
“I plan to keep playing through June,” Brown said. “Chardonnay’s going to China over (the) summer. So I might find someone to do it with me.”
Conversely, Needler hopes she will be able to recruit someone for next year.
“If not, my dad knows a lot of people that have wineries,” Needler said. “So worse comes to worst, Chardonnay will be going to wineries as a solo.”
—By Annya Dahmani
Originally published in the April 10 edition of the Octagon.