Lighting Up Faces

by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, November 2004 Vol. 115 No. 1375 page 1150

Far-reaching and innovative, String Project aims to introduce students to the joys of teaching. Laurinel Owen sees it in action at the University of South Carolina.

‘When I interview a student for a position on my teaching staff the first question I ask is: “Why do you want to teach?” The answer I’m looking for is: “I want to do for kids what my teachers did for me.”’ Gail Barnes is speaking to me at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia, where she is the director of an extraordinary programme: the university string students instruct hundreds of community children and are paid to do it. When I saw the system in action and witnessed the results, I wondered – this is so obvious, why don’t all music schools offer the String Project?

In fact, the programmes at USC along with the University of Texas at Austin are serving as models for a consortium of 24 university music departments across the country that have devised a practical approach to attack the growing problem of teacher shortages in the public schools. Originally conceived in 1948 at the University of Texas, the String Project was overseen by Phyllis Young, professor of cello and string pedagogy, who worked with the programme for 41 years and directed it for 35 of those years. During the last half century literally hundreds of string teachers have gone on to disseminate their knowledge throughout the US after having their first teaching experience while still in college.

‘We need to encourage young people to go into the teaching profession,’ emphasises cello professor Robert Jesselson, who directed the USC String Project for 15 years, was former president of the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) and for six years was director of the National String Project Consortium. ‘Unfortunately, applied instrumental teachers all over the country, of which I am one, are still trying to create miniature versions of themselves – just playing their instruments and hoping that they will eventually get a job in an orchestra while secretly dreaming of becoming the next Itzhak Perlman. In reality, most will be forced into something else. But meanwhile, we have a crisis situation. There are string-teaching jobs that are going begging, and when school districts can’t fill the positions, the programmes are cancelled. If we do not address this issue nationally we are like lemmings jumping over a cliff. The consortium has attempted to encourage undergrads to get teaching experience during their college years. Thus, we expose students, even performance majors, to the joys of teaching, and pay them to do so.’

This comment seems to coincide with the experience of third-year USC student Lacy Sinclair. ‘I wanted to perform when I started, but my private teacher told me there was just too much competition. If I hadn’t come to USC I never would have known that I have a talent for teaching. I sure wish I had had this when I was a kid. It is a great thing when you see your students improving – it is a dream to teach.’

My own early teaching experience was, at least on one occasion, more of a nightmare when I was a String Project teacher at Texas in the mid-70s. As a second-year student I was given three little cello pupils. Phyllis Young was a frequent observer often aiding me with advice and practical suggestions on teaching tone, rhythm, set-up and intonation. I assisted the graduate students who conducted the advanced orchestra by bowing parts and running the occasional cello sectional. My most difficult assignment was teaching basic music theory – note reading and rhythm – to six year olds. That is until the day I stepped out of the classroom and returned to discover that the entire class had jumped out of an open window and run away! The experience was invaluable.

Though my visit to Columbia coincides with the spring holidays the turnout to Friday afternoon classes is impressive. Students lead group and private lessons, chamber music coaching and conducts the orchestras, which are divided into skill levels from little beginners to polished adolescents. Rehearsing simultaneously, the facility has a buzz of shared enthusiasm and energy. The sight of racially mixed groups is a pleasant surprise since some may view playing the violin or cello as a ‘sport’ for rich white kids.

Beginners are recruited by the String Project teachers, who visit the elementary schools, at the start of each school year. Stacy Long, a freshman violinist, describes her experiences. ‘We go in pairs and put on a skit about the instruments. The kids get really excited, because it isn’t boring. My partner and I related the four instruments to the fairground. The violin was a Ferris wheel because it likes to go high and the cello was a pirate. From our two schools we got 17 recruits.’

Student teachers are incrementally given more responsibilities so they have the chance to hone their teaching skills gradually. At the beginning of their tenure in the project teachers assist those with more experience in classes and are only permitted to teach alone in their second year. By their junior year they are allowed to teach second year group lessons and in the final year they conduct and teach beginner classes, which can have as many as 25–30 children.

The beginners’ class I sit in on starts with graduate student Jolene Walter playing on her viola a series of five notes that the children imitate. She then varies and they copy the series through 25 permutations in order to sharpen their listening and aural skills while she walks around the room correcting positions and giving encouragement.

During several private lessons I notice that the teachers have the ability to identify a problem, but still lack the understanding of how to solve it. Of course, these teachers are only 19 or 20 years old. To guide them through this learning process there is a model for the student instructors: master teacher Johanna Pollock. Lesson supervision falls to the graduate assistants and Barnes. ‘Even though students may occasionally get stumped they frequently bring issues to us,’ Barnes remarks. ‘We also present case studies in meetings so that everyone can offer suggestions for particularly challenging situations.’

The USC String Project has three orchestras. The youngest ensemble group, Silver Strings, is made up of second year players most of whom play quarter- and half-size instruments. It is conducted by David Pope, a graduate assistant, and Vincent Washington, a senior. Impressive to me is the excitement and vigour these two young men bring to their teaching; they are not self-conscious or fearful of making a mistake. Both appear to be seasoned professionals sharing their excitement for music. ‘The first year I was so nervous,’ confesses Washington, ‘but I’ve learned to interact with the kids. Now I see myself as a role model, just like my middle school teacher – who also went through the String Project – was for me.’ Pope comments: ‘By the time the children are in their second year I can already see the results. I’m not only correcting F sharps; we can really work on making music.’

The largest orchestra, Concertino, is made up of students who have played for several years. Rehearsing in a hall the size of a gymnasium, the stands are set up with the students’ names hanging off the back so the conductor can easily identify the player. The older university students conduct, while the younger and less experienced assist through correcting posture, demonstrating and advising on fingering. Each addresses the other as Mr. and Ms. indicating respect and exhibiting the seriousness of the process to the children.

Intermezzo is the orchestra the youngsters aspire to. It is led by Barnes, who taught for 18 years in public schools before returning to university to obtain her doctorate in Music Education. When asked why she directs the String Project she admits: ‘This sounds corny, but I like to see that moment with the university student when they get it – why we work so hard to see that light go on in a child’s face.’

The children’s discipline in Intermezzo is exemplary and the repertoire imaginatively selected so all instruments have the chance to play a melody and take an active part. ‘I keep teaching the community children because having a top ensemble gives the kids a goal to work towards and it keeps me fresh – I don’t have to repeat the same old stories for 18 years,’ she muses. ‘Besides, my passion is great school orchestras. I love the dynamics of working with 50 kids.’

Many parents support their children by accompanying them to orchestra rehearsals and lessons. Frank Asmond, the father of a second-year violin student, remarks: ‘The String Project has given Cierra determination. Because she works hard, music is building her self-esteem and confidence. She was so proud when she got first chair in the school orchestra.’ Tina Auman, mother of a fourth-year violin student, comments: ‘My son was recruited from a private school that didn’t have a music programme. He is a highly intelligent boy who has thrived with music because it has given him opportunities the school doesn’t offer and it has really helped him in math.’ And Ken Blocker says of his son Ryan: ‘He has gained confidence and I have found that music complements his abilities in poetry, drama and art. He loves his teachers here because they are young and remember what it was like when they were little and learning to play.’

Eddie Gaillard, a violinist in the Concertino orchestra, agrees: ‘I chose the violin because when I was in the third grade they came to the school to show us the instruments. It wasn’t the loudest, but we get the melody. I thought the cello was too deep. I like the young teachers, because they are easier to connect to.’

The USC’s String Project began in 1974 with 41 students and 6 teachers and has grown to 342 students and 27 teachers. Tuition is a meager $70 per semester that provides two classes twice a week; add $20 more for private lessons and $150 for participation in Intermezzo. This means that playing the violin is affordable for even the lowest income families. ‘The tuition covers the teachers’ pay,’ explained Barnes, ‘but we also give scholarships and provide instruments to some kids. So, we must supplement these monies with a couple of fundraising events and grants. Mark O’Connor did a benefit for us for example, and our summer camp is a good moneymaker too.’

The programme is obviously successful. ‘It really affected the community in very positive ways. Columbia had essentially no public school programmes when this started – now all the schools have large string and orchestra programmes,’ Jesselson confirms.

But beginning a String Project is not easy, as Barnes admits: ‘A university must dedicate space and give load relief to the director – this is a big job!’ In the case of USC, the programme grew to the point where the administrators were forced to hire a music education person with a string background to take over the String Project – and this was where Barnes came in.

Kathlene Goodrich, a professor at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, received a grant from the ASTA National String Project Consortium. ‘I am very worried about the shortage of string teachers in this country,’ she told me. ‘When a public school can’t fill a position they either cut the programme or ask a general music teacher to step in. I decided to write a proposal to start a String Project here. Now we are in our third year and have 14 undergraduate teachers and 125 children. I am the master teacher of cello and director. There is a clear difference in the level of teaching between the students who have experience and those who have never seen a child before. They are no longer thinking about themselves and how they look, but about hand positions, intonation and tone.’

According to Jesselson the involvement of one or two schools will not solve the problem of the teacher shortages. ‘We need universities all over the country – at least one in every state – to start producing qualified teachers to fill the jobs. The String Projects are not the only solution, but I think that the proven track record should be instructive. What is interesting to me is that of the 36 existing and proposed projects many of the directors (or those who applied to participate) were applied string teachers – because most of those schools do not have a music education string specialist. So, some of the applied teachers have caught the vision and get the point. That is encouraging.’

For more details see and follow the link to the String Project Consortium.

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