This past school year has brought a lot of changes for Nathan Swets '19. Originally from Bellingham, Washington, he has spent the last several years living in Saudi Arabia with his family, where his parents are both teachers at an international school. Last August, he came to St. Andrew's as a new IV Former. In between Crew and Orchestra practice, while he ate a quick dinner balanced on his lap on a bench outside the O'Brien Arts Center, I talked to Nathan about life as a third culture kid, his music studies, and how his first year at St. Andrew's has been going.
How did your family end up in Saudi Arabia?
My parents wanted to teach over there, and we had friends there already. We knew that we would be able to go to boarding school and have a better education than at an American public school. At first, though, I couldn't even comprehend it. I never thought I would leave Bellingham and hadn't really traveled a lot before. We moved at the beginning of my sixth grade year, which was pretty hard. It was really different.
What were some of the biggest adjustments you had to make?
I think the biggest change was just the culture shock of being in a 100% Muslim country and having a king with absolute power.
Where is 'home' for you?
I have three homes, I guess: One here at St. Andrew's, and Bellingham. Saudi was basically a four-year vacation from there. I definitely have a part of me that comes from all three different places.
Do you identify with the label "third culture kid"?
Yeah, I do. It's interesting because in Saudi you don't necessarily fit in because you're not Muslim or Arab. You start to fit in more, but there's still always that aspect of you that's American. Then when you come back here people don't assume you're from here. A lot of people think that I'm from Saudi. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have a lot of different perspectives on the world because of it.
So, when did you start studying music?
When I was really young, I always wanted to play bizarre instruments like tuba or something weird, but my mom suggested that we start with piano because it's a base. From piano, any other instrument that you learn will be a lot easier. You're going to have rhythm already, and be able to read music. I started playing piano in kindergarten, but stopped when we moved to Saudi. Then, I started learning the drums because there's an excellent percussionist and band teacher there who gave me private lessons. I really like just jamming out. I didn't want drums to be my resting point, because everyone wants the solo. When I got here, I was interested in playing drums, but also open to other things.
Why did you choose to start studying the trombone?
Mr. Geiersbach told me he'd love it if I played trombone. I also really wanted to get better than my dad.
Oh, your dad plays trombone?
Yes, he does. I think he started playing when I was in ninth grade.
A little competition there.
My brother plays trumpet, so we have a brass family, I guess. My sister plays piano. Everyone in my family has played piano. I guess you could say we're a little musical.
So, your dad's heard you play trombone and you've played with him?
When do you think you're going to achieve your goal of becoming better than him?
Oh, I've passed my dad.
So far past my dad. He takes it well.
I was past him in, basically, the first two weeks. Not that he's a bad trombone player, but I was playing an hour every day and picked it up really fast. He plays maybe 15 minutes a day. One thing that he can do that I can't is play it while riding a unicycle. He's still got me beat there.
What's been your experience with the trombone so far? Are you enjoying the instrument?
I guess it came pretty easy to me because I'd already learned piano and could read notes. Then, I did afternoon Recital as my winter activity. I've now become principal trombonist, which is really cool. I really like playing jazz. Soloing is hard, but I like having a challenge.
I understand you also picked up bassoon a couple months ago?
Orchestra and the trombone is just not fun. We're talking 300 measures of rest. So I asked Mr. Geiersbach to find me another instrument that I could play in the orchestra. He suggested I pick up bassoon, and I liked that idea, so we switched my lessons from trombone to bassoon during Winter Recital. Now I'm still learning bassoon, and playing second in the orchestra. The learning curve is very slow. Trombone is really fast at the beginning but then it mellows out and it's harder to get better. Whereas with bassoon, to be able to actually play along with the orchestra takes a lot longer.
Among all these instruments (piano, drums, trombone, bassoon), do you have a favorite?
I don't know. They're all so different. I like something about them each specifically, otherwise I wouldn't keep playing them. Playing trombone in the Jazz Ensemble band is probably the most fun right now. Jazz is the best on trombone; it has a lot more opportunities to solo and just get up and play a bunch of notes. I do like playing classical on the piano and bassoon, but I feel like there isn't that groove that makes you tap.
Are there any more instruments you'd like to learn?
Yeah, but I'm going to hold off for now. If I took up another instrument now, I would have to let go of one I already play. I have reached capacity.
Do you think music is something that you'd want to continue pursuing after St. Andrew's?
I don't think I would pursue it professionally, but definitely as a hobby, for fun, which is the best. Once you start having to play as an obligation, it cuts away at the vibe you get when you're playing music. Music shouldn't be a chore. That's when people quit playing.
How has your first year at St. Andrew's been going?
There's definitely a transition period. I was going from 15 minutes of homework to two-hour study halls every night. It takes a while to get used to, balancing extra-curriculars, sports, work, fun, and sleep.
Any advice to new students, particularly IV Formers like yourself who are just starting?
Just power through because you're going to be able to do it, you'll just have a couple hard weeks first. Once you are able to balance all those things, there's a feeling of accomplishment, which is really nice.