On Monday afternoon, tentative strains of Go Tell Aunt Rhody echo in the foyer of the Chilmark School where beginning and intermediate students perform solo violin recitals. On Tuesday morning, a group of Advanced Orchestra students work to achieve fortissimo at the West Tisbury School. On Wednesday morning, eight intermediate students, ranks depleted due to MCAS testing, fill the band room of the Tisbury School with the coda of their latest piece. One youngster swings his foot in time to the music as he plays.
“Those notes are such great notes,” strings instructor Nancy Jephcote says to another student. “I hope this week you’ll be friends with them. Right now you’re acquaintances.”
Students in the strings program at Island elementary schools celebrate their friendship with music every spring during a full orchestra concert performed at the regional high school’s Performing Arts Center on Monday, May 20. All levels, from the Suzuki beginners to the eighth grade soloists, will take to the stage. Individual recitals continue at the schools over the next three weeks.
This year, 146 students are enrolled in the program, which was resurrected in 1986 after a successful afterschool class founded by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society demonstrated the Island community’s enthusiasm for strings. Prior to that, strings had been absent from the schools for 15 years, the victim of budget cuts.
Ms. Jephcote was an instructor in the afterschool program and for years taught privately. She also plays in the Flying Elbows.
“Everybody agreed that it was the right thing to do to bring it [back] into the schools,” she said. Strings officially re-entered the elementary extracurricular program in 1988, under the guidance of the late Stephanie Kupchynsky. Several teachers worked with the program through the 1990s, and Ms. Jephcote became the full-time instructor 11 years ago. She is joined by part-time instructor Chelsea Pennebaker and program assistant Carol Loud, who plays accompaniment piano during the classroom sessions. For the past two months, Katrina Nevin stepped in for Ms. Pennebaker, who was out on maternity leave.
The strings instructors are “basically itinerants,” Ms. Jephcote said in an interview this week. Because their program is regional, they have no fixed office and instead spend the week traveling between schools, typically two every day, to work with their classes. Morning classes begin at 7:30 a.m., before the school day starts. At the end of the spring semester each year, the teachers will visit first-grade classrooms for instrument demonstrations. Interested newcomers can sign up to join the program the following fall.
The strings program is unusual, Ms. Jephcote said, because kids can start at such a young age. Other band instruments don’t come in smaller sizes so a student wishing to play the clarinet, for example, would have to wait until perhaps the fourth grade to handle the full-size instrument. Violins, however, can be shrunk to fit.
“When I was a kid it was very rare to see half-size instruments,” Ms. Jephcote said.
The program is free for all students and they can rent their instruments from the program or purchase their own. Financial help is available for those who cannot afford to rent, made possible in part by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society.
“We think it’s a great program,” parent Susan Sigel Goldsmith said Wednesday morning, after picking up third-grader Katie and classmates from morning practice in Tisbury. Being part of an orchestra teaches the value of working hard, she said, as well as cooperation. Katie has been playing “pretty much all her life,” Ms. Goldsmith said. Katie said she still remembers playing while sitting on a mat on the floor.
Beginning students enter via the modified Suzuki learning plan, which focuses on ear-learning as opposed to note-reading. A formal Suzuki program is structured around parent participation at lessons, which is nearly impossible with a school program.
“What we find is we’re able to work with the really young kids and give them a really good basis,” Ms. Jephcote said. “And then when they go into orchestras they already have good sound.” In the second year of the program, note-reading takes center stage. Some beginner students take to playing by ear so well, Ms. Jephcote said, that it can then be difficult to teach the reading.
All students begin on violin.
“Violin vitamins,” said Ms. Jephcote. In their second year kids have a chance to try different orchestra instruments. Violins remain the most common, but the viola, cello and bass have healthy representation.
“Some of the kids learn to do it so well that they are capable of playing at the professional level,” Ms. Jephcote said, citing strings alums Nina Violet (viola) and Willy Mason (cello). Other alums go on to teach their own programs off-Island, she said.
“It’s really more important to some of these kids than [most] would realize,” she said. “They care about it, their emotions are involved in this.”
This time of year is crunch time for the students, as they rehearse for their solos and the group concert.
“My favorite concerts are the big ones, because they work so hard,” Ms. Jephcote said. “It’s one thing to polish up a song and play it as a solo...it’s another thing to nail all of that with the group.”
The promise of performance also provides a goal for the strings students, and a way to keep focused during the throes of spring fever.
“It’s a way to celebrate what we know,” Ms. Jephcote said.
The All-Island Spring Strings Concert is Monday, May 20, at 6:30 p.m. at the regional high school Performing Arts Center. Admission is free.