“I’m going to play you a piece that Mozart wrote when he was eight,” Swil Kanim told a room full of teenagers.
“I’m not going to tell you the name. You should know it. I ‘should’ all over you,” he joked, as he started to play “Pop Goes the Weasel” on his violin, working the instrument the way a star point guard works a basketball. He maneuvered it behind his back and between his legs, at one point tossing the bow in the air, and playing all the while.
Kanim’s mix of silliness, inspirational personal stories, interaction with students and virtuosic violin playing dazzled Chief Kanim Middle School at May 16 assemblies, sponsored by staff and the PTSA.
Eighth graders swarmed the performer after the assembly, thanking him for his visit and asking for hugs.
Students were taken with the man, an indirect descendent of their school’s namesake, who shared with them his stories of learning to play the violin and searching for meaning in life.
“I’ll pass these stories on to my children,” eighth-grader Dylan Shoup said when Kanim asked the crowd what the assembly meant to them.
“Your saying that made the pain in my life worth it,” replied Kanim, obviously moved.
Kanim was invited to present in part because of his name – his ancestors were cousins of Chief Kanim — but mostly because of his message, said co-organizer and school librarian Janna Treisman.
The school has a self-improvement program that aims to teach students “how we make this a better place by being better people,” she said.
Kanim works that theme into his shows by expressing himself through written word and original music. He shared a story about his first visit to a therapist who encouraged him to talk about his childhood. Then he played a powerful song he wrote after that session.
“My intention is to show people no matter what age that the value of self-expression is not selfish. It’s actually an act of generosity for the whole community,” he said.
“We are every one of our mistakes and victories,” he said. “The hurt of one is the hurt of all, and the honor of one is the honor of all.”
In addition to wanting to share Kanim’s message with students, Treisman also wanted them to hear his sheer musical talent.
“His violin is like nothing else you’ve ever heard. It’s original music and it’s incredible,” she said.
Kanim has been playing the violin since fourth grade, and credits a “well-supported music program” at his school with his success. After playing a painfully off version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – and waiting for applause – Kanim told students that was how he sounded when he first started playing. His parents asked him to “please practice – just not while we’re home.”
He certainly took their advice to practice. Kanim has gone on to a career as a concert violinist and actor, appearing in the TV series “Northern Exposure,” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Business of FancyDancing.”
• Swil Kanim plays at Miller’s Community & Arts Center in Carnation the first Saturday of every month at 8 p.m. More information is online at www.swilkanim.net.