Radford students tackle musical strings
Listen up, or grab the earmuffs, Radford residents.
The familiar squawks and honks of first-time musicians now can be accompanied by squeals and scratches of bows as students at one Radford school take on stringed instruments.
Fifth and sixth graders at Belle Heth Elementary School are taking part in an ensemble filled with violins, violas, cellos and bass, and they’re learning quickly, organizers said.
It’s the first in the system and of its kind west of Roanoke, said elementary music teacher Sandy Findley, who has been mulling the idea for the past decade while she’s worked in the school system.
“Any opportunity for students to make music expands their music learning experience,” she said.
Public school students traditionally tackle brass, percussion or woodwind instruments at this age. Belle Heth also has a choir and multi-instrument Orff ensemble, which includes percussion. The importance of music education is nothing new.
Research from Northwestern University suggests that musical ability may also have links to how sounds such as speech are processed.
School systems in Northern Virginia – where Findley formerly worked – and across the nation have orchestrated string programs in their schools. So, in June, Findley took the idea to Radford University professor Edith Carter and the two worked out ideas taking them to the school system’s superintendent, Becky Greer.
Students’ parents the $6 per hour fee for the after-school lessons and also instrument rental fees. A few students’ fees are paid by a private sponsor.
Roanoke Symphony Orchestra violinist Nicole Paglialonga instructs the ensemble, which has been practicing for nearly a month. The school system gives her a stipend.
“They were eager to get started,” she said. “These kids have so much enthusiasm, so much energy. They are really dedicated. They’re actually practicing. It’s cool to see a bunch of kids who have not been exposed to that in the way that kids in a larger city are.”
Paglialonga said she’d like to see the ensemble change long-held stereotypes about stringed instruments being earmarked for the more affluent.
Initially, Findley expected about 12 students, but about 30 responded to the open call. Anyone interested got to join.
Stringed instruments take a different level of patience than other instruments, the instructor said, and it’s something students are taking seriously.
Most of the students already understand basic notes. While they aren’t yet working through Strauss or Stravinsky, they will get started with classic beginner pieces such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns.”
“[The instruments are] not any more challenging to teach a fifth grader than an adult,” Paglialonga said. “It’s unique, but what they don’t have that an adult does have is this self-consciousness about performance. They don’t have the stage fright. When you’re teaching a kid they are just so happy every time they learn a new note or when they finally figure out how to hold the bow the right way. Every next step is a celebration.”
While the group has yet to perform, they could be added to future arts nights concerts, Paglialonga said.
“The want is there. The desire to have the arts is really big,” she said.
If the students continue their work throughout the year, the hope is they’ll continue to an intermediate level next year, and a new crop at the school will take their place next year. Findley sees them having the opportunity to perform through their senior years of high school via the Radford Youth Orchestra.
– By Anna Mallory, Special to The Burgs