String fever: New London students enjoy free violin lessons

Instructor Carly Fleming leads a recent violin lesson with students at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School.
Instructor Carly Fleming leads a recent violin lesson with students at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School. SEAN D. ELLIOT/THE DAY Buy Photo

Inside an airy, light-filled art classroom at New London's Regional Multicultural Magnet School on Tuesday afternoon, a group of fourth- and fifth-grade students carefully took their violins out of their cases. They toyed with the instruments first, trying out individuals notes and scampering through sections of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Then, teacher Carly Fleming called this after-school lesson to order. She led the kids in neck and arm stretches before they delved into the music itself. The students tucked their violins under their chins and, with their elbows angled out, placed their bows carefully against the strings. They ran through scales and various songs, with the children keeping their eyes trained, intently, on the instrument and periodically flashing their gaze up to Fleming.

These students are among 14 at the magnet school who have been receiving violin lessons - free lessons - on Tuesdays and Thursdays since January.

It's part of the Music City Strings program, run by the nonprofit New London Community Orchestra.

The volunteer orchestra was launched in early 2011 by Tom Clark, who owns Clark Instruments in New London, and Joan Winters, whose many musical credits include being principal second violinist for the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.

Clark and Winters wanted the orchestra to have a focus - a purpose - beyond performing. They decided that their concerts should be a way to raise money to fund student lessons.

In fact, the orchestra is presenting two concerts this weekend: at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Coast Guard Academy's Leamy Hall and at 2 p.m. Sunday on New London's City Pier. The shows are free, but donations are accepted.

Music City Strings has been supported with the lessons, too, by grants and funding from Charter Oak Federal Credit Union, the Chamber of Commerce of Southeastern Connecticut, the Kiwanis Club of New London and the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.

Clark says Music City Strings is modeled on a similar project in New Haven. It's part of a movement that has been percolating around the world, giving kids a musical opportunity they otherwise wouldn't have had. The New London program, though, is unique in this region.

Most of the violins for the Music City Strings sessions were donated by individuals and shops. The program was open to any fourth and fifth graders at the magnet school who wanted to join, and there is no charge for kids who are participating. During interviews, several students appreciatively pointed out that the lessons were free to them.

And they are all learning from scratch.

Fleming, the cellist who is the head teacher for Music City Strings, says, "It's really quite remarkable to see these kids who knew nothing about a violin who are now playing 'Twinkle Twinkle' and 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' It's really fun to watch that happen."

Fleming notes, too, that the kids go home and want to play their instruments. They don't just do class and then put the violin away until the next session. Some students, she says, are even composing their own little pieces.

Erica Judy, a member of the New London Community Orchestra who volunteers with the Music City Strings program, says of the students, "You can tell some of them are just so excited to play faster, or they want to play louder - with an instrument, you can see a personality come out. I remember when I was learning, I always liked to play very fast; that was my thing. ... Then (there are) the ones that just want to learn how to get that really nice, beautiful, quiet note out."

Jaylene Holley, a fifth grader who lives in New London, talked before her Tuesday lesson about how she enjoys creating different sounds with the violin.

"I like the sound, the flow when you play," she says.

It can be challenging to learn how to play the violin, she adds, discussing a certain bow hold and other issues involved.

Like Holley, India Harper, a fifth grader from New London, says she finds it all fun. She, too, talked about technique matters, such as trying to get a nice, simple sound from the instrument: "You press a little harder, and you go out with your bow, instead of straight - or else it will just make, like, crunchy sounds."

The students have been working up to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Frere Jacques," learning both the melody and harmony of the songs.

Judy says, "At first, we're teaching them open strings, which is, you're just drawing the bow across the string and that's it. Eventually, you learn how to use your left hand on the string - you press on it with your finger, and you shorten the string, and it therefore produces the next note."

She remembers the kids hankering to get to that point and Fleming telling them they had to deal first with the basics, like athletes learning to dribble before they can play basketball. At the same time, Fleming notes, it's not just about doing scales. It's also about finding ways to engage the kids - taking a cue from their interest in learning the "Star Wars" theme, for instance.

"It's neat to see their eagerness, and it's neat to see when they hit a note, or they learn and their bowing gets a little better - their eyes just get wide and they're, 'Oh! I hear it!'" Judy says.

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