Change the Soundtrack

Editors, Vineyard Gazette:

In the 1920s, a doctor by the name of Abraham George Sheftel, who later went on to develop a groundbreaking blood sugar test for diabetics, fell in love with a voluptuous violinist while listening to her play. Claire Casten was a prodigious strings student who had started playing at the age of five. It didn’t take long for her to fall for the handsome doctor. Soon after meeting, the two married. Their love story, indeed their life stories, were guided by their passion for music. I often find myself wishing that they had lived long enough to see their great-granddaughter standing on the stage of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center with her violin tucked under her chin.

Last year approximately 170 children participated in the annual spring strings concert, the culmination of the academic year’s classes and early morning orchestra practices. The youngest ones, some not much larger than the instruments they are playing, stand elbow to elbow on stage while they play Hot Cross Buns and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All the students on stage stand up and play the songs they are capable of and sit down during the songs they have yet to learn. Some of the more advanced students, like Sam Graber Hahn, now a Tisbury School fifth grader, performed The Gavotte in D Major by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Nancy Jephcote has been involved in the Island string program for over two decades. Chelsea Pennebaker, who is employed part-time, came aboard four years ago. One or both of them teaches in all the Island’s elementary schools. They work with over 200 students. They also stand at the helm of two orchestra programs, one for beginners, started last year by Ms. Pennebaker, and one for the elementary school players, which Ms. Jephcote conducts. The program is designed as an introduction to string and orchestral work. For those of us who have a child in the strings program, we know it is much more — why else would our kids rally to get to the Tisbury School by 7:30 on Wednesday mornings, even during the harshest winter chills.

My daughter, Maddy, has taken lessons from “Miss Penny” for the past four years. If I were to write Ms. Pennebaker a letter of recommendation, which I hope not to have to do, I would sound like a babbling fool, using terms like “infectious enthusiasm,” “confidence instilling,” “ingenious methods,” “unwavering dedication,” and so on. Let’s put it this way, she’s a gifted teacher — I’m talking Mr. Holland’s Opus kind of gifted.

But times are tough. Budgets are tight. Parents whose children are in the strings program can hear the music — no, not their children practicing, but the soundtrack to the scary movie, the one in which Ms. Pennebaker’s position gets cut.

When Dr. James Weiss, superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard schools, submitted the fiscal year 2011 shared services budget, he wrote in a memo attached to the budget:

“While none of the local towns has officially requested a zero per cent budget increase, I believe this is a general sentiment for the Island.” He then proposes “several significant and unwelcome reductions” which would “reduce our outreach to the arts community across the Island and pare down the elementary strings program.”

Somehow Dr. Weiss found an additional $8,500 to fund a school physician, which frankly confused me because I was under the impression that our schools all had competent nurses.

My hope is that the towns, school committees, parents and taxpayers continue to support a comprehensive education for our children, one that includes the arts. It is widely believed that the study of music can help with academic success, raise test scores, develop community, and have a strong impact on behavioral patterns. As Plato said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

We can adjust the soundtrack and embrace the strings program. Stave off cuts that could decimate the core of this program and keep it functional. Let’s hold a concert. Okay, we can make it a fundraiser. Sell CDs. Or don’t. Just pick up your instrument and play. Let’s celebrate to the sound of our children.

Kate Feiffer

Oak Bluffs

Staying in Tune

Editors, Vineyard Gazette:

What a remarkable thing we have here on the Vineyard: a strings program in the public schools, where all our children, from as early as first grade, may begin to acquire mastery of violin or cello, in school time, with no cost to parents except instrument rental.

This program is one of the crown jewels of our excellent education system. Yet on Thursday, Oct. 22 in the high school library conference room the All-Island School Committee will discuss cuts to this program that could reduce it by as much as one third. (At present, funding covers just one and a half teaching positions; proposed reductions would end the half-position, either limiting instruction time or reducing the number of pupils who benefit.) Public comment at this meeting is invited.

Research is extensive on the benefits of early music education, showing it enhances everything from math ability to the auditory areas of the brain. But there are other benefits that can’t be as easily quantified. I’m thinking of the many smiles I’ve had, listening to our littlest Island kids playing their instruments with such gusto and accomplishment. As a community, we have to decide what’s worth paying for, even in hard times. I hope we can all agree that this one isn’t negotiable.

Geraldine Brooks

Vineyard Haven

Essential Strings

Editors, Vineyard Gazette:

The Island string program is a very important part of my life (I am in fifth grade at the Tisbury School). It helps me get through hard times and helps me learn. Better yet, it is fun. I believe that it is an essential part of the Island and our community. I think that we should keep it going.

Samuel Gary Graber-Hahn

Vineyard Haven