Charlotte, 18, and Olivia, 21, are Bachelor of Music students from Bellevue, Washington. Charlotte studies violin with Robert Lipsett and Olivia studies cello with Clive Greensmith.
This interview has been edited for style, content, and clarity.
How did you get started playing your instruments?
Olivia Marckx (OM): Both our parents play, not as seriously as we do. Our mother is a cello teacher, so we always grew up hearing a lot of music, but the plan was never to have us play. But then when I got into school, I had some really severe problems with large-scale coordination. I was in physical therapy at school and the physical therapist was telling my mom that in order to help me, I should be practicing doing something that was different with both hands. So like, pat your head, rub your stomach kind of stuff.
And so my mom, who plays the cello, went home and she was practicing and she was thinking, what can I have her do that’s different with both hands? It took her like a bit and then she was like, “Oh.” And so the plan was never to have me be any good. The plan was for me to do it for therapy. And then I liked it. So, here I am, age 21, in school for it.
Charlotte Marckx (CM): For me, I grew up with her, [Olivia], already being pretty far along on it. We’re three years apart, so she was always the one that I looked up to. I wanted to be just like her. So my mom thought, since Olivia was doing so well, why not have me follow the same path? I started on the cello and I was very bad. I was not good at it. I had trouble with, like, the bow hand, and it wasn’t working out for me.
At one point, when my mom knew this was not working, she said, “Why don’t we switch to the violin?” I didn’t know what a violin was. I was like, great. I’ll play that thing. And I started, and I fell in love with it because it was so little and cute and I really enjoyed it, and I never looked back.
You’re in a duo together, the Sempre Sisters. Tell me about how that came to be.
CM: What happened was that my sister started getting interested in making arrangements. She started with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which was one of our first pop arrangements. And that was really what turned just messing around with multi-genre stuff into an actual duo. I also compose tunes, and so we’d be composing tunes and we’d be arranging them and putting them together in medleys and stuff.
How did you come to be at Colburn?
OM: I applied to a few places. I was very lucky. I had some Jack Kent Cooke funding that I used to travel a couple of places in my latter years of high school, looking for a teacher that was the right fit. I was really excited to get accepted into Mr. Leonard’s studio. That was just like a dream come true. And it was so awesome to get to Colburn.
CM: I had been aware of Mr. Lipsett for a long time at that point. As soon as Olivia got accepted at Colburn, it was like, “Okay, so how do I get in, too?” Mr. Lipsett was very much a very famous teacher in [the Seattle area] and in our household. So, I contacted Mr. Lipsett, and it somehow worked out. I still can’t believe it. Besides being my dream teacher as a kid, Mr. Lipsett also ended up being my dream teacher now.
Knowing him, working with him; it’s beyond a dream come true. He’s absolutely incredible. And he changed my playing so much, and he’s such an incredible mentor to me, and he’s so unbelievably inspiring.
Olivia, you mentioned that you also received funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation?
OM: We’ve both had a lot of support from the Cooke Foundation.
CM: She, [Olivia], got the Young Artist Scholarship from From the Top, and I was lucky enough to be a Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholar when I was growing up. It’s actually an academic scholarship, but they made an exception in supporting me musically. And it was absolutely unbelievable. The Jack Kent Cooke community is so supportive and so wonderful. And my advisors over time were absolutely incredible and so supportive. Shout out to Patrick Wu, an amazing guy, and so many mentors and people who supported me. And then I was lucky enough to be accepted into the College Scholar program as well, which is absolutely a dream come true.
Back to Colburn. Obviously, things have been very different this year. How has that been going for you?
OM: Mr. Greensmith does a really, really great job at keeping our studio very connected. We have studio classes every Friday. Generally, people will share recordings and then after they’re done, he’ll give a talk about something he’s found interesting that week. It’s been really fun to kind of get more of a look inside his brain, because the stuff he finds interesting is very eclectic.
The classes have been great too. It’s been really nice to stay connected over Zoom. And I feel like I’m learning quite a lot. I miss everyone, but the level of involvement we’ve been able to have this semester has been great.
CM: I’ve been totally enjoying my lessons and studio class, and everything has been so incredible. I’m loving my classes and being home has actually been really nice for me. I went to college early, and it’s always tricky, adjusting and trying to take care of yourself for the first time. So it’s kind of nice to be able to be home, to be getting such a high level of instruction while being able to be supported by my family and be able to not have to worry about food and laundry and stuff like that.
Unlike probably a lot of students, you two are still able to perform at home together. How do you think that has been affecting your experience?
CM: It’s so great. A lot of the problem with quarantine is that people aren’t able to play live with other musicians. You don’t realize when you’re holed up in your practice room at Colburn how important it is to then be able to come out and play with other people, engage with them musically in a meaningful way. For us musicians, it’s so, so important. We’re really lucky that we’ve been able to work on Ravel and Kodály, and we’ve been working on Brahms Double [Concerto], which was so fun. And it’s just been so much better because I have her there.
And you were on Performance Forum recently?
CM: Yeah. That was so incredible. When I was first at Colburn, it was like, “Oh my gosh, these incredible people playing on Forum.” And I remember Mr. Lipsett telling me it’s one of the highest honors there is. And being able to have our Brahms on Forum, it’s kind of like a historic Forum, and that was incredibly cool.
Mr. Lipsett has put so much work into making sure that [virtual] Performance Forum isn’t a step down at all. [Conservatory students] Fiona [Shea] and Adam [Millstein] have been working to make sure that it’s such a cool experience. And so it made it really feel like we were on Forum. And that was so incredible. It just boggled my mind. It’s such a huge honor to have been able to do that. It was so, so fun.
What was it like preparing for Performance Forum and recording it?
CM: It was really cool to be going into a recording studio instead of stepping up on the stage. It had different pros and cons because on the one hand, actually going into Forum, there was no stress at all. It wasn’t like you wake up and it’s like nerve wracking, “Am I going to play well?” We were already proud of what we created.
When we were actually in the recording studio, there was an extra level of stress. There is an expectation of, ideally, nothing short of perfection. But it felt really good to be able to control it. And yeah, it was an incredibly fun experience.
Tell me about the video you decided to share for this story.
CM: We do music videos of our pop arrangements. They’re low production. We have fun with it. One of the more recent ones we did was, Olivia created an incredible arrangement of Somewhere Over the Rainbow mashed up with Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road by Elton John. And it was an incredibly fun video to put together.
OM: It was towards the beginning of quarantine that we did this.
CM: So it’s all in our house. It was kind of like, what can we do with what we got?
OM: The answer turned out to be a lot of balloons.
So, what do you hope to do in 2021?
OM: I hope to be back at Colburn, playing with her, [Charlotte], playing with other people. Continuing to work with Mr. Greensmith would be amazing. I’m happy with where things are right now, and I just would love for things to keep going. And that way, because I feel like I’m at a good place musically–
CM: If not globally.
OM: Not globally. But I feel like I’m getting musically what I need to make a lot of great progress. I’m very pleased with that. So, fingers crossed.
CM: I kind of feel the same. Despite the pandemic, I’ve been able to make a lot of progress. And I’ve been doing a lot of work with Mr. Lipsett, and I just really hope that it can continue and that I can keep progressing and getting better. It’s one of the interesting things about an unprecedented event like this, is that we have no idea what’s going to happen next. And I think it’s just going to be kind of fun to see and to roll with the punches and just see where this takes us.
Watch the Sempre Sisters Perform Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road