Montana natives, and descendants of the inspiration for ‘The Sound of Music,’ find a voice of their own
STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAY BJORKThe von Trapps’ childhood began simply – homeschooled in a storybook house that rises out of a broad field set against the Swan Mountains – until their love and talent for singing pulled them into the local limelight and eventually launched them on an international singing tour. The Flathead Valley’s von Trapp Children are all grown up now and redefining their lives and music as adults.
They began touring in 2002 when the children were the tender ages of 7, 10, 11 and 13, and for the next 12 years the world became their classroom. As the von Trapp siblings think back to the adventure they shared as a family, they marvel at their parents’ courage, self-sacrifice and fortitude. Stefan and Annie’s goal to educate their children was achieved in a field trip across the globe. From Japan to Africa, from New York City to Nashville, they traveled throughout five continents and extensively throughout the United States. Their appearances have included the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America” and at the Grand Ole Opry and Carnegie Hall.
For more than a decade they have been carrying on the singing tradition of the Trapp Family Singers and their great-grandfather Captain von Trapp, who were made famous and beloved across the world when their story was told, first in a book written by Maria von Trapp and then in what became one of the most beloved movies of all time and a Broadway musical, “The Sound of Music.”
The children’s father Stefan was the son of Werner (portrayed as Kurt in “The Sound of Music”) and was raised in the East where many of the von Trapp family resided and ran the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. Eager to step out on his own, Stefan sought a quiet life in Montana with his wife Annie where he established himself as a gifted stonemason and crafted a handsome home for his family in wide-open acreage in the Somers area.
Stefan doesn’t consider himself musical despite the singing and performance heritage of the von Trapp family, but it wasn’t long before this natural talent began to emerge in children Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and Justin. The children sang softly in the loft at bedtime, in car trips across Montana and belted out tunes across the open fields surrounding their home. Singing was another language for the foursome that soon turned into rich harmonies. When they sang at church and social events their parents recognized the magical effect of their children’s beautiful voices joining into one.
The turning point came when their grandfather, whom they called Opa, suffered a stroke and was unable to make his annual visit to Montana. They decided to cheer him up with a music CD recorded at a Missoula studio, which took on a life of its own. Although it was not what Stefan and Annie had planned or wished for their family, they could not ignore the phenomenon that unfolded as requests and opportunities began to flood in. Led by their faith, the family’s blessing and Opa’s words, “When one has gifts, he also has a responsibility to share those gifts,” the family decided to answer the call to share their music.
Guided by a family principle of serving others, their schedule included numerous unpaid performances. They witnessed the power of their music when they sang at the Ground Zero rest station set up at St. Joseph’s Cathedral to provide respite for the firefighters and volunteers who had the heartbreaking and gruesome task of searching for 9/11 victims, and then in Rwanda where they sang the new national anthem to a country bravely lifting itself out of the horror of war and genocide. When they stood in front of audiences, the von Trapp Children weren’t just delivering songs, they were delivering hope – that there still is goodness and innocence in the world.
Looking back they acknowledge that because they were children, they probably didn’t realize the magnitude of their family’s fame and the impact of their legacy of music. Even now as they explore new ways to express their music they say they will always include some of the classics such as “Edelweiss” in respect and gratitude to their heritage. “We know that we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors,” Sofia says.
Their name might get people in the door, but the audience quickly discovers that this generation of von Trapps has earned their bragging rights. Their voices have matured to polished silky tones, their musical range has deepened and their style has matured into a more sophisticated and unique sound.
When the girls began college they cut back appearances and travels for several years. Sofia enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Amanda studied politics, and Melanie studied music at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and is currently taking online courses in history. Justin, now sporting the family name August as his legal name, finished high school and has plans to complete his general college subjects online. At a crossroads – because they are no longer the von Trapp Children – it is an ideal time to figure out what comes next.
They say they really are just blowing in the wind. Perfect for spirits rooted in Montana where every day was fresh, free and authentic. Nearly two years ago they landed in Portland to perform with the Oregon Symphony where they met Thomas Lauderdale and his band Pink Martini at a tree-lighting ceremony. They became intrigued with the amazing instrumental sound of Pink Martini. Sofi says, “Our strength has always been dense harmonies.” Amanda adds, “We had ignored what instrumentation could bring.” They asked Lauderdale to help them to find a new vision.
The result was a collaboration with Pink Martini that included a bus tour, an appearance at Carnegie Hall and a new album, “Dream a Little Dream.” They describe their new sound as “old-fashioned, cinematic, and joyous.” Their new music is an international melting pot that includes the wide-ranging elements of music they discovered in their travels along with originals written by August.
They believe that their ultimate goal of connecting with people is better accomplished when they observe traditions and language of the local people, a tradition that began long ago when they were children touring the world. Songs on their latest CD are performed in seven different languages.
The four live together in a house in Portland now. They explained that an apartment would have never worked with their constant singing, composing and playing instruments. Amanda says, “I’m figuring out how to play the Brazilian Tamborim … super hard and no one likes listening to you practice because it’s so loud. Ear plugs are a necessity if you’re going all out.”
Eager to meet new people when they first moved to Portland, they started throwing schnitzel dinner parties by word-of-mouth. It began as small intimate groups, but quickly ballooned into over 50 people. The informal versions ended and morphed into a charming and funny video with instructions on how to make schnitzel on their website and as an auction item in an Oregon Symphony fundraiser – “Schnitzel with the von Trapps” for a whopping $500 per plate.
Each of the von Trapps has taken on a special role in the group. Sofi handles many of the managerial tasks using knowledge gained when she studied music business at Berklee; Melanie takes on most of the accounting and finances along with some creative video ventures; Amanda does social media, public relations and some fashion design; and August speaks for all of them through his musical composition and arrangements and a comic book he wrote about four fictional adventures they had while selecting songs with Thomas Lauderdale for the new CD.
They emphasize that their collaboration works largely because they get along so well, which becomes apparent in their polite and respectful interaction. They can finish each other’s sentences, but give each other equal time and credit in a group conversation. They are joyful and playful as they prepare for a photo shoot, but quickly find their space and composure when the shoot begins.
Their family bond has kept them glued and grounded in the crazy world of entertainment. August says, “I sometimes feel like I got in a boat in the Amazon going through the crazy jungle and sat watching things – but I didn’t get out of the boat.”
They have been successful in staying sane and safe in a notoriously crazy business, while still experiencing the world in meaningful ways.
They sang for the president of Rwanda and his council, taught music in a Rwandan orphanage, sang with almost every major American symphony, had multiple appearances with animal expert Jack Hanna, and recorded six CDs and a concert DVD. But even though much of their childhood was spent all over the world, their hearts still belong to Montana.
They all agree that they appreciate their home more now. Sofi says, “We see how insanely gorgeous it is – the most beautiful place in the world.” They say they appreciate the nature, the people who Melanie describes as, “authentic, non-judgmental, wholesome and hardworking.”
During a Montana homecoming Sofi was so overcome with emotion and joy that she ran straight to the piano in their family home and composed a beautiful song, “Montana Home.”
They only had five days on their last trip home, so they made sure their time included a 20-mile trek in Glacier National Park, a jump into a clear cold lake, visits with friends, and picking raspberries.
They then returned to Portland to a busy fall schedule that includes performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City and at 21st Hayes Hall with the Naples Philharmonic in Florida.
The girls are still in their early to middle 20s and August is only 19, so they acknowledge that they really don’t know what they will ultimately end up doing. Sofi says, “Right now we are having a great time.” Amanda adds, “We are still young and still learning and it is hard to say where we will end up because of the unpredictable life of music.”
After all, despite all their early success, they are still chasing their dreams. But one thing they do know – they will always return to their Montana home.
FAVORITE THINGS M. Sasak books, reading Russian novels, bagels, looking for new music, bungee jumping, driving really fast, the wind in my face, Winnie the Pooh, snacks.
MOST MEMORABLE Touring China. I’ve never felt more amazed, excited to see such a different culture and history of civilization. I felt like I’d landed on a new planet!
MOST VALUABLE The people I’ve encountered through our travels and what I’ve learned by being included in their lives. Also, being able to share all of these experiences with my siblings is priceless. Nothing makes me happier than laughing at all the crazy and hilarious situations we’ve all been in together throughout the years.
FAVORITE THINGS Fly-fishing, Latin dancing, and swashbuckling.
MOST MEMORABLE Going to Rwanda to teach music and then being able to learn and sing the Rwandan National Anthem was the most memorable three months of my life.
MOST VALUABLE It’s hard to say; we’ve had so many people take us under their wing and teach us so much, every one of these people have added so much value to my life, I couldn’t pick one over the other.
FAVORITE THINGS A really good fiction book, National Geographic and banana-peanut butter smoothies.
MOST MEMORABLE Appearing on a Chinese day show called DAY DAY UP two years ago is my most memorable experience. It was so surprising, amazing and strange; I think my mind expanded more on that one day than any other day of my life!
MOST VALUABLE I would have to say it’s a collection of seeing sunrises out of hotel windows in the places we have traveled. I always experience an incredible sense of wonder in those moments and would never trade them for anything.
FAVORITE THINGS Running, reading, research, and rocking out to great songs…in public! I also love to debate on nearly anything interesting and pick raspberries all day in the summer time.
MOST MEMORABLE The most recent was having at least 3,000 people from the audience sing happy birthday to me in Vence, France for my 23rd birthday – and in French. It was one of those moments you couldn’t believe was happening because it was so unexpected and fun.
MOST VALUABLE Definitely the relationships I’ve made along the way. I have met and gotten to know some truly wonderful people all over the world. I’ve learned so much from others and bringing them into my life makes it such a special journey to share and look back on as being really formative, fun, and connected.