Falling in Love With the Nyckelharpa—and Each Other

Husband and wife Justin Nawn and Bronwyn Bird bring their passion for music to the Birdhouse Center for the Arts in Lambertville.

Bronwyn Bird performs on a Swedish nyckelharpa with her guitarist husband, Justin Nawn.
Bronwyn Bird performs on a Swedish nyckelharpa with her guitarist husband, Justin Nawn.
Photo by Paul Bartholomew

Justin Nawn remembers the moment when he met his future wife and professional partner, Bronwyn Bird. It was fall of 2005 in Bird’s dorm room at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, where both were students.

Bird and Nawn had both grown up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, but perhaps because Bird was homeschooled, had never met, a situation that Bird’s roommate sought to rectify by inviting Nawn to their dorm.

That day was also the first time Nawn encountered the nyckelharpa, the Swedish stringed instrument that Bird plays. “I thought, ‘Wow…a beautiful girl and what an amazing instrument,’” says Nawn.

In the following decade, both the woman and her instrument would become central to Nawn’s life.

Nawn and Bird are the cofounders and directors of the Birdhouse Center for the Arts, located on Main Street in Lambertville, where they live. The center offers instruction, music therapy and performances. They also have ensembles, including a group called the Not Just Nyckelharpa Orchestra (NJNO), which includes several nyckelharpas and other instruments. On December 17, the Birdhouse will host its annual Winter Solstice Celebration, featuring a community Solstice Sing, led by Nawn and Bird on guitar, voice and, of course, nyckelharpa.

The nyckelharpa has four primary strings like a violin, but is held across the chest like a guitar. Its four main strings are depressed by wooden keys along the instrument’s neck and are played with a bow. The nyckelharpa also has non-bowed resonance strings, which give the sound a richness that Bird likens to that of several fiddles playing at once.

Bird first encountered the nyckelharpa when she was 13 and taking a Swedish dance class near her home in Doylestown. One day, the teachers brought in their nyckelharpas to demonstrate traditional Swedish dance music—live. Bird fell in love with the sound. “I had to play it,” she recalls. One of the teachers lent her an instrument, and she started taking lessons. At 17, Bird went to Sweden for a year to study nyckelharpa.

The following year, Bird went to Berklee, thinking that she would study music performance. Nawn suggested she try music therapy—his field of study. Again, Bird fell in love. After graduating, both with degrees in music therapy, Bird and Nawn, who began dating a month after they met, worked as musicians, teachers and music therapists, but what they really wanted was to create a community music center. Bird’s parents, still in Doylestown, noticed a building for sale in Lambertville.

“Once we saw the space,” says Bird, “the opportunity was too good to not make those pipe dreams kind of a concrete form.” Bronwyn and Justin purchased the building with help from her parents, and in 2012, the Birdhouse was born.

Bird and Nawn married in 2013. For the next two years, the Birdhouse won Hunterdon County’s Happening List award for kids’ music instruction. This year, their first child, Willow, was born. Nawn, a guitarist, is learning to play the nyckelharpa, and Willow has a child-sized instrument. “We’re a nyckelharpa family,” says Bird.

And Lambertville is a nyckelharpa town.

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