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Big Ideas: Two sides of the same coin October 11, 2018

How a strong bond has helped two brothers, cellists and McMaster Engineering students find success.

Maximilian and Theodor Aoki do everything together. The brothers are classically trained cellists and have built their skills as a duo, playing with one another for the past 15 years. They went to the same high school and now they’re both engineering students at McMaster University.

As the musical duo versaCello, they won the 2015 JUNOs Turn It On: Sound Off competition, performed at Supercrawl 2018 and recorded with JUNO award-winning producer John "Beetle" Bailey. Now they’re testing their acting chops as stars of Things I Do for Money, an upcoming Canadian film directed by Warren P. Sonoda, of Trailer Park Boys and This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame.

“Cello has really helped us forge a bond because we always relate to whatever the other person was doing,” explains Theodor, a first year Engineering 1 student. “We’re always on the same journey together.”

But the pair is also different. Theodor is calm, calculated and introspective. In contrast, Maximilian is bubbly, outgoing and animated. The brothers are aware of their differences and take advantage of this as a musical duo.   

“My brother is smarter than me,” admits Maximilian, a third year Mechanical Engineering & Society student. “He's got all the technical know-how. If we've got a whole bunch of different gear to work with he's got that all down. If I was by myself for a gig I would be kind of stranded.”

“My strengths are networking, making connections and just getting out there. We're actually a very good duo in that sense – you need two different sides of the same coin. One wouldn’t work without the other.”

“My brother has the confidence,” says Theodor. “Without my brother I don't think versaCello would be a thing. My brother has the guts to do it and I think that comes out in his music too.”

During their time at Westdale Secondary School, a music-focused high school in Hamilton, the brothers started having fun experimenting with pop songs. They did a variation of “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson and “Counting Stars” by One Republic.

Maximilian says versaCello’s approach to covering songs is a lot like engineering.

“Engineering is about deconstructing your problem and creating a solution,” he explains. “We take a song down to its core and do what we need to make the music have the same feel but with two cellos. There are limitations with the cello you have to overcome by finding the most efficient way to create a song.”

When the brothers won the 2015 JUNOs Turn It On: Sound Off competition, they realized they could take their music career to the next level.

Following the competition they started receiving more views and comments on their YouTube channel. But it was one comment that led to their next big break.

“The comment said, ‘This is phenomenal’ and it was from Shoot Good Films,” explains Maximilian. “We found out it was Warren P. Sonoda who owns Shoot Good Films. Later, he sent us an email and said he’d love to do a collaboration of some kind.”

Sonoda and fellow writer, Gary Nolan pitched their movie idea to the brothers – a crime thriller about two Japanese Canadian brothers.

“He asked, ‘can you guys act?’ and I wasn't sure at that point,” says Theodor.

 But the brothers decided to seize the opportunity. They are currently filming and writing the original soundtrack for Things I Do for Money.

“It's been crazy seeing our growth from that moment when [Sonoda] first asked us and I thought I don't know if I could do this. Now I'm so glad we did it." 

Though their careers are steering in a musical direction, the brothers are also interested in pursuing other options with their engineering degrees.

“I want to do something to help with climate change,” says Maximilian. “If I made a career out of engineering, I would want to make a positive impact on the world.”

Theodor is new to engineering but, like his brother, he would like to make a difference.

“There's a great capacity to help bring people together in engineering, like with Engineers Without Borders,” he says. “I think if I can help bring people together that would be a great thing to do with a degree.”