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Young Quintet Honors Parents Memory Through Music

Above: The Bunnell Strings includes siblings (L-R) Kimberly, Corrie, Ross, Keren, and Cara.

Aired 3/28/13 on KPBS News.

A San Diego string quintet has just returned from Washington D.C. where they played for members of the armed services. But it was more than a concert tour for the young quintet. For the five siblings in the Bunnell Strings, it was a family trip.

It’s almost 7 a.m., and the Bunnell siblings are in hurry.

They need to get from their Chula Vista home to San Diego State in time for class. All five siblings, ages between 18 and 24, started school last fall. Four sisters rotate in and out of two bathrooms. Ross, the youngest at 18 and lone male in the family, moves quietly about his morning.

The Bunnells go to school together, play music together, and in the evening watch episodes of "The Office" together. They say they enjoy living together.

Kimberly, 22, petite like her sisters, hurriedly eats her breakfast. She announces someone is taking her oatmeal because she has fewer packets in her private stash. Ross says it wasn’t him and Corrie, 21, is unfazed.

Like all college roommates, the Bunnells fight over food. Their cupboards and refrigerator don’t get stocked like they used to, here in their family home. In fact, many things changed after cancer claimed the lives of both of their parents. But music, memories and their continuing strength as a family have allowed them to thrive.

The Bunnells play music together in a family quintet called the Bunnell Strings. They just returned from Washington DC where they played for members of the armed services. It was both a concert tour and a family vacation.

Most days the Bunnells go to school together and stay until the last sibling finishes class. Some days that’s after 5 p.m. They have a truck that they use to transport all their instruments back and forth to school.

At night, they watch movies or episodes of “The Office” together.

Twins are known to spend this much time together, but five siblings? That’s rare.

But the Bunnells' life has also been unusual, and their profound losses have forged a special bond. They lost their father to skin cancer in 2007. Three years later, their mother died of colon cancer.

Surviving Loss

Things fell apart after their mother died. Corrie, the quintet’s first violinist, said they stopped practicing and cleaning the house. “We were like little lost sheep,” she recalled.

No one did the grocery shopping then either.

“Oatmeal for a year straight for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Ross said, shaking his head. “I hate oatmeal now!” I refrain from pointing out this seems to clear Ross as a suspect in the morning’s mystery of the missing oatmeal.

Before she died, Julie Bunnell made sure her children would keep the family home. She set up a trust for the kids. She taught the oldest, Keren, how to pay all the bills, including the mortgage. Keren was 21 at the time and went to court to get custody of her two youngest siblings, Cara and Ross. Their father, Jim Bunnell, was in the Navy, so the Bunnells attend college on VA scholarships.

It wasn’t until recently that the Bunnells realized how self-reliant they’d become. On tour in Washington DC, their managers were like temporary caregivers, telling them where they needed to be and arranging their meals. “They took care of everything,” said Keren. “It was like having parents again.”

As young as they are, the Bunnells are quite practical. They make decisions as a group and if there’s disagreement, they talk it out. One family pact involves the future of their quintet. They’ve committed to three years of playing and performing together. They want to tour and possibly record an album. After three years, they’ll reevaluate based on where everyone is at in their lives. Both Keren and Kimberly are engaged with plans to marry in the next couple of years.

A Musical Life

In a non-descript classroom in the SDSU music building, the Bunnells rehearse under the guidance of two music professors. The Bunnell Strings are two violins (Corrie and Cara), a viola (Keren), cello (Kimberly) and double bass (Ross). The young professors tell them to play with more flair. They’re practicing an arrangement of “America” from West Side Story.

The siblings attend San Diego State University. They've committed to playing together for the next three years, after which they'll take stock and decide if they want to keep the family quintet going.

Julie Bunnell didn’t play an instrument or have a musical background, but she made sure her kids rehearsed every day. Corrie remembers her mom sitting on the stairs at home, watching them practice. At first, she was quick to point out when someone was out of tune, and her observations weren’t always right. But after a while, she developed a finely tuned ear. “If it was just slightly out of tune or the articulation was off, she would know,” said Corrie. “It was amazing!”

Corrie arranges all the music for the Bunnell Strings. She’s also the composer in the family. The quintet often performs a piece she wrote called “Fluzzadillo,” based on family lore dating back to their youth in Pensacola, Florida. Their father told them the area’s large mosquitoes were actually “fluzzadillos” that feasted on small children. During concerts, the Bunnells share this favorite as well as other family stories.

Kimberly says they’ve figured out how to be happy. “I think with everything that we’ve been through, it’s actually made us appreciate our happiness more. Appreciate that we can be joyful and still live a life that we can enjoy together.”

After the professors leave, the Bunnells take a quick break before beginning to rehearse on their own. Corrie pulls out a glazed donut and places it on a music stand in the middle of the group. First a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” fill the room, then there’s a policing of bite sizes.

The Bunnells may squabble over who’s taking the biggest bite, but like everything else, they share the donut.

When just crumbs remain, the siblings begin to play again. Maybe it’s the sugar, but they match each other’s energy and appear to have found the perfect balance of precision and flair.

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