String Instruction at a Shoestring Price

Dec. 3, 2009

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Be sure your pinky fingers are bent. Thumbs should be curved, too. Legs at shoulder width apart, knees relaxed.

Oh, yes. And absolutely no sword-fighting with the violin bow.

Those were a few of the directions elementary and intermediate school students received recently from Ashley Johnson of Arlington, a senior music education major at Baylor University, at an after-school lesson at Lake Air Intermediate School in Waco. There, Central Texas youngsters are getting a bargain on string instruments lessons.

The lessons are courtesy of Baylor University, one of 35 higher education institutions in the National String Project Consortium, as part of a five-year grant program administered through the National Association of Music Merchants.

"The goal of the string project is to offer low-cost string instruction for communities that don't have those programs, as well as to give Baylor students a teaching experience before they actually become student teachers," said Dr. Michael Alexander, associate professor of music education at Baylor University.

Students will give a free demonstration of what they have learned at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, at the school.

The instruction is only $35 a semester -- $1.25 for a one-hour class -- and is offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays for students who are eager to learn to play violin, viola or cello.

Not bad, considering that some private instructors charge $35 for one session, Alexander said.

While the program is not targeted to under-privileged children, "it's such a low fee that it's accessible to all," he said. "Just about anyone can come up with a dollar and a quarter."

Among those who attend the Baylor String Project classes are students from Waco, Midway, Robinson and Axtell schools, as well as some who are home-schooled. Some school districts have string programs for middle school and high school students, but this gives students an early start, Alexander said.

Baylor received a $20,000 grant, beginning with $10,000 in 2007, to launch the program. It is designed so that the grant money tapers off each year until the program establishes a reputation and becomes self-supporting.

While Alexander oversees the program, Baylor students provide the hands-on training. At each Tuesday class, a "master teacher" -- a string specialist or second-year Baylor String Project student teachers -- teaches a class of about 30 students, with classes being offered concurrently in violin, viola and cello. At the Thursday classes, students break up into smaller classes of five to 10 students for individual attention, and Baylor students model their teaching on what they observed on Tuesday.

The students initially held pencils as substitute bows until they learned proper technique, earning a compliment of "beautiful, beautiful" from Johnson.

She reminded them not to grip the bow too hard and suggested they shake their hands periodically to loosen them and prevent cramps.

Keep your bow hand steady as you play, Johnson told the students.

"Do you think you can keep a penny on top of your hand?" she asked. "I want you all to have good habits, because you know how hard it is to change bad habits."

Sometimes, along with the technical instruction, Baylor students offer emotional support -- like comforting a sobbing fifth grader when the finger board on her viola broke. It's easy to repair, they assured her. For now, they said, it's fine to attach it to the instrument with a rubber band and go through the motions.

Robin Wilson, principal of Lake Air Intermediate, said it has been fun to see the youngsters' progress.

"This is part of our efforts to offer some cool fine arts things for kids," she said.

The "pre-teaching" experience for Baylor students helps prepare them for their student teaching and careers, Alexander said.

The project began in 2007with four Baylor students working with about 30 youths. Currently, 10 Baylor students working with 65 students, he said.

Johnson said working with the Baylor University String Project has been "an absolute joy."

"This has helped me become more comfortable in a classroom setting," she said. "I'll be better equipped and trained when it comes my time to student-teach in a school district my last semester at Baylor.

"Being a music major at Baylor is quite demanding, and when I am having one of those 'What the heck am I doing majoring in music?' kind of days, I go to teach String Project and remember just exactly why I want to be a music educator."

Demonstration by String Students

4:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009

Lake Air Intermediate School Cafetorium

4601 Cobbs Drive

Waco, Texas

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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