By teaching violin at a Title I school, Rosemary Furniss is brightening the futures of both the students and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
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And so they rehearse.
The kids are in second through fifth grades, and several are Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, so the rehearsal hits a few pockets of turbulence. A few of the older kids, like Allayah, handle their instruments with confidence and sure hands; some of the younger ones glance around confusedly as they bow their violins out of rhythm. One student drops hers and gasps. She and it survive.
“OK, do you remember what we’re doing?” Furniss calls out. It’s a simple tune titled “Cheeky Monkey.” The students run through it. It’s rough. Some of the instruments are out of tune.
“OK, everyone has to remember that the first finger and second finger are not friends,” she says. The tune needs to be crisper, too, sprightlier; it’s dragging. “He’s a cheeky monkey. He’s not a miserable old monkey.” The group runs through it again. The performance this time is tighter, with a momentum the earlier try lacked. “Well done,” Furniss says, smiling. “Much, much better.”
She corrects, she encourages, she crouches before her half-size students and tunes their half-size violins. “It’s like painting a bridge,” she says. “You start at one end, and by the time you get to the opposite end, it’s out of tune again.” One thing she does not do is lose her patience. Furniss has grown surely into her life as a teacher, especially of the young and underprivileged.
It started with Menuhin, of course; she began teaching at the Menuhin School, her alma mater, in 1986. In 1998 she returned to help her mentor with a new project, “A Chance to Play,” a violin program for poor children in England that continues to this day. (Menuhin’s Children focuses on the program’s first class.) She founded a similar program after joining the London Chamber Orchestra in 1997.
These kinds of outreach programs are beginning to flourish around the world. The model for most is a thirty-six-year-old Venezuelan program called El Sistema, which has taught hundreds of thousands of children from all economic backgrounds to play and appreciate classical music. The Charlotte Symphony’s support of Winterfield’s violin program stems from its desire to support a local El Sistema–like project, says Meg Whalen, the CSO’s director of public relations and community engagement.
“We’re not just trying to teach these kids music. We’re in a way trying to give these kids a lifeline,” Whalen says. “I know it sounds like Mr. Holland’s Opus, but it really is true. It really does give them something they can feel proud of.”
As it approaches its eastern terminus at Albemarle Road, Central Avenue cuts through the Sheffield Park neighborhood and a mile or so of apartment complexes, body shops, tiny grocery stores, and ethnic restaurants and bars with names like El Pulgarcito de América (“the Little Finger of America,” a nickname for El Salvador) and El Gavilan (“the Hawk”) Sports Bar. This is the heart of Charlotte’s fastest-growing demographic, its Latino population, and a few blocks off Central sits Winterfield Elementary, where these families’ children go to school.
In spring 2007, just before the end of the school year, teacher Courtney Hollenbeck brought her violin into her second-grade classroom to illustrate sonic concepts like tone and pitch to her science class, which included a shy girl named Maria Rojas. The next day, her mother came to school and told Hollenbeck, My daughter said your violin sounded like angels.
Hollenbeck decided to start a violin program at Winterfield. Music education in CMS doesn’t start until middle school. So Hollenbeck ordered three kid-size violins off eBay and paid for them herself. She had about ten students that fall. At practice, they’d pass the instruments around like bowls of vegetables at dinner.
It’s three and a half years later, and Hollenbeck, twenty-eight, is downing Pizza Hut pizza in the Winterfield cafeteria just after the February 8 concert, a smashing success. About 100 people showed up, most of them parents and neighbors of the eighteen violin students. The concert and pizza afterward is part of a CSO community outreach program called Connecting Families through Music. The students borrow the violins, paid for through donations and a pair of grants, and return them at the end of the year. Today, a new shipment has arrived: four cellos, the program’s first venture beyond the violin.
“I never in my wildest dreams imagined this happening,” Hollenbeck says. “I’m just amazed by the progress they’ve made.”
Nearly everyone is. Allayah Parris, not so much. All the experts say one of the things music education builds in children is self-esteem. In Allayah’s case, it appears to have worked. So, Allayah, how long have you been playing violin? “A year and a half,” she says. “And I’m really good.”
To prove it, she starts playing the national anthem. She stumbles a couple of times, especially toward the end, but she recovers and finishes to applause. Allayah, born in Lumberton, lives with her mother in the neighborhood. She didn’t know much about the violin before she started playing it as an alternative to chess. Now she wants to be a violinist. Of course, she also wants to be an actor, model, singer, and doctor.
But working with Ms. Rosemary, she says, has made her love music in general and the violin in particular. “I’ve learned a lot ever since she came. I kind of know how to do vibrato—kind of. She taught me how,” Allayah says, letting a little humility slip. “I heard her play, and she was really, really good. Then I looked her up and I saw that she had played in a bunch of movies. One of my teachers played in movies! Pretty cool.” This is significant, she says, because it means “I could be famous.”
Her classmate Jelani Jones, also ten, has a more age-appropriate reason for liking Ms. Rosemary: “She’s always nice and stuff. She doesn’t yell at us.” Jelani’s parents, Roger and Kim Jones, urged him and his younger sister, Nia, to take violin when they learned about the program at Winterfield. And it’s a good thing, too, “considering this is a ‘Title I school,’ ” Kim Jones says, forming quotation marks with her fingers. “It allows children who aren’t as privileged to play and get the same opportunities as other kids. … He’s a straight-A student, and he needs to experience as much as he can until he decides what it is he wants to do.”
Jelani has that all figured out. “I want to be three things: an engineer, a wrestler, and a violinist,” he explains. “If I have time.”
This article appears in the May 2011 issue of Charlotte Magazine
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