By Jenny Neyman
The Alaska Senate opened the 58th day of the legislative session March 14 with a rare treat, a live performance of the national anthem sung by one of Alaska’s own talented young musicians, 17-year-old Duncan Brewer, of Nikiski.
Though such an occurrence is an unusual start to the day’s deliberations, the performance was actually somewhat of a reprise. Not even a month earlier, on Feb. 24, the 39th day of the session was opened with another live vocal performance, also of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” also by a talented young Alaska musician, also from Nikiski, also named Brewer. But this time it was 11-year-old Olivia, Duncan’s sister.
How they both came to perform for the Senate was a convenient twist of luck — both were in Juneau during the legislative session, and schedules worked out for the performances. How they came to be singers of a caliber to perform for the state’s lawmakers, and many more public audiences besides, was no quick happenstance, but has been the result of longtime training to hone their natural abilities.
Duncan and Olivia’s mother, Kelli Brewer, said both kids have been singing since they were little. One with more initial success, however.
“From the time he was little the kid had perfect pitch. He could hear a song and get on the piano and start playing it and figure it out in a really short period of time,” Brewer said.
Singing came so naturally to Duncan, in fact, that the idea of his musical ability being a talent had to be forced.
“He just really enjoys it and has done well by it, but since it’s so easy for him he
assumed everybody could sing. ‘Mom, it’s not a big deal,’ he’s told me. I tell him, ‘No, not everybody can sing like that,’” she said.
Case in point was Olivia, at least at first.
“With Duncan, we knew he could sing for a long time. And when she was little and we’d be driving in the car or something, Olivia would try to pipe in and sing, too. And she was horrid, absolutely horrid,” Brewer said.
Not that it would have been a big deal if the musical gene skipped over Olivia’s budding branch of the family tree, but it seemed odd to be quite so removed from it.
“We have a family history of singers — aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, all the way back,” Brewer said.
Brewer sang when she was younger, as well, at one point training with the Seattle Opera.
“But all my years of commerce fishing, yelling for 25 years, destroyed by ability to sing,” she said.
Brewer took Olivia to a vocal coach, who wondered if Olivia perhaps had a hearing problem and tested her on musical scales. Turns out she could hear just fine, and could sing better than fine, just not in the range she’d been attempting. Brewer is an alto, and when Olivia would try to join in, she’d copy her mother’s range. Olivia, as the vocal coach discovered, is actually a soprano.
“All of a sudden she could go up into tune when they got to the soprano range. And
that was it. Within a very short period of time of just singing a little bit she was able to excel really quickly,” Brewer said.
Both Brewer kids have amassed impressive resumes of vocal performances. Olivia takes both piano and voice lessons, has sang solos for school performances, been in musicals for the Kenai Performers and sang at meets for the Soldotna Silver Salmon swim team, of which she is a member.
For now, Olivia’s career goal is to be a veterinarian, and she helped with the vet checks for this year’s Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race. Though the weather was a blustery minus 30 degrees this year, she sang the national anthem for the opening of the T-200 event on Jan. 28. Not long after that, on Feb. 28, she sang at the George Navarre Kenai Peninsula Borough Building to kick off of the 100 years of Girl Scouts celebration — she’s is a Girl Scout on Troop No. 697. The following week she sang for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.
Outside of music, Olivia loves the outdoors. She traps, runs, skis, plays soccer for the Kenai Krushers and does any kind of fishing available, plus pilots whatever she can get her hands on — four-wheelers, dirt bikes, jet ski and planes with her dad, Doug Brewer. The family owns and operates Alaska West Air.
She’s a fifth-grader at Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai, and swims for the Silver Salmon team based at Soldotna High School. It was actually her swimming that took her to Juneau. She was there competing in the Alaska Swimming Age Group Championship, which earned her a spot to compete in the Alaska Junior Olympics coming up at the end of the month in Anchorage.
Kelli Brewer, who went along to chaperone, though it’d be fun to arrange a tour for
Olivia of some of the facilities of the state capital. She inquired about Olivia possibly singing for the Senate, and sent in a recording of her performing. Not only did Olivia get to tour the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion — including meeting the Parnell family’s dog, Annie — she was approved to sing on the floor of the Senate.
“I plucked her out of pool in the morning, dried her hair off and put her on the floor of the Senate and she sang,” Brewer said.
A month later, Duncan was in Juneau serving as a legislative page during his week of spring break off school. He’s a junior at Kenai Central High School, where he was a member of the starting offensive and defensive line during the Kardinals’ state championship football season. He also puts his voice to work announcing at KCHS hockey games and online for the Kenai River Brown Bears. And
he’s always helping out in the community, as he’s regularly conscripted to volunteer with whatever projects his mom is doing.
“He’ll serve food at the food bank, or set up chairs, or whatever. He knows that if I’m doing it, he’s going to be doing it, and his whole football team if I can get them,” Brewer said.
He and his sister share an interest in the outdoors — fishing, hunting, trapping and flying. He’s working toward obtaining his private pilot license, and in the summer works at the family’s Alaska West Air as a dockhand.
He’s currently considering whether to attend the Naval Academy or the University of Washington to pursue aeronautical engineering, but either way he expects music to continue to be a part of his education and larger life.
In high school, along with being an honors history and language arts student, Duncan has logged several accomplishments in music. He has been selected to perform for three years at the All-State level, two years at the All-Northwest level, was ranked first in the nation as a Bass 1 singer for National Honor Choir and performed in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center, and also at Benaroya Concert Hall in Seattle.
While in Juneau as a page, Brewer thought it’d be a good experience to sing for the Senate, as well.
“They said, ‘Sure,’ but then he had a cold that morning he did it. But he still got out there and sang,” Brewer said.
Anyone who hasn’t already heard the Brewers perform can expect many more opportunities to do so, as both are booked for future events. Up next for Olivia is singing the national anthem April 28 for the Alaska Junior Olympics in Anchorage, then an Italian soprano aria, “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from the Giacomo Puccini opera “Gianni Schicchi,” for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meeting in Seward on May 7. She’ll be singing the Alaska state song June 9 for the Safari Club International Banquet, at the Soldotna Sports Center, while Duncan will sing the national anthem.
As nice as it is for the larger Brewer family to have both kids performing at the same event, the kids don’t always have the same idea about it.
“Olivia’s funny, now she’s really competitive with Duncan, ‘Hey, that’s my gig, you can’t do that,’” Brewer said.
Brewer is pleased that her kids have been able to so successfully pursue their interest in music, even coming from a small town. But she thinks the community actually helps, rather than limits, their opportunities.
“I think we’re really fortunate. People think we have so many disadvantages to living in a small town, but I’ll tell you, in some areas it’s amazing the opportunities we have,” Brewer said. “Mark Robinson in Homer, Rosemary Bird (at Kenai Middle), Renee Henderson (at KCHS) — these people have been in this business for so long. They really know how to help our kids and get them connected where they need to be connected,” Brewer said.
When Olivia was preparing to go sing in Juneau, for instance, Bird had her sing in a weight room to get a sense of the acoustics she’d be dealing with on the Senate floor.
“Really practical things like that. Some kids have natural abilities, and whether they do or not, these people are here to help our kids pursue their dreams,” Brewer said.