Sounds of strings fill the New London library

Olivia Jennings and Jim Hunter at the New London Public Library during a lesson. (Courtesy Karl Jennings)
Olivia Jennings and Jim Hunter at the New London Public Library during a lesson. (Courtesy Karl Jennings)

Several nights a week the joy of music joins the joy of reading at the Public Library of New London. In collaboration with the New London Community Orchestra, the Music City Strings program offers free violin and cello lessons for young people, three days a week.

Everyone involved — from the young students to their parents and the volunteer organizers — know that the benefits go beyond the concert hall. This puts Music City at a par with other similar programs in nearby cities, such as Community MusicWorks in Providence. I learned of that program some 17 years ago, when I was director of Teatro Latino Estudiantil at the University of Rhode Island and was asked to serve in a grants panel at the Rhode Island Humanities Council.

The Providence organization had been active providing lessons for the less privileged households ever since its founder, Sebastian Ruth, got a grant in his senior year at Brown University to teach free music lessons for a year. He had learned through a survey that about half of the population feels socially disconnected and he asked, “Can a music program be a catalyst for connection in one’s own neighborhood?”

The results answered the question positively. And so too is the case in New London.

The strings lessons at our local public library are designed to promote active learning, both by the students and by their parents. One recent day, Nathan Hale 5th grader Adonis Díaz and his mother arrived a bit early and sat in the Genealogy Room to wait for the 3rd session to start. Tom Clark, the founder of Music City, came in to tune Adonis’s violin. His mother took out her phone and found the right note using the app she uses to tune the instrument at home.

Diaz had been on the waiting list for two years. When the time arrived for his lesson, he was ready to answer when asked what “allegretto” means and ready to follow the instructions from the teacher, Jim Hunter.

Hunter continuously interacted with players — reviewing, clarifying, checking for understanding, using funny stories to model improvement in their playing, such as using the whole bow. He even shocked them a little by suggesting, “Play as if you’re enjoying yourselves.”

Music City has implemented a strategy to record student progress in order to improve the program and to compare learning from one year to another. Students provide information on the pieces practiced and how often.

Olivia Jennings, a 6th grader at ISAAC school, says that she doesn’t practice as much as she should and is working on improving this because “it gives me another skill, it helps around school when one has to study hard.” Olivia is thankful that the program demands discipline and is teaching her how to read music. She has played with the Community Orchestra in places like Connecticut College and Mitchell College.

“It is very exciting to be there and perform for a lot of people,” she said.

All the students say that sharing their work with their families and the community at one of the local concert halls is one of the attractions of the Music City strings program. A chance “to play with other musicians,” as Diana Ramírez, another ISAAC student emphasized.

Diana has learned how valuable reading music and learning to play an instrument can be. She is the only violinist in her school band. And the transfer of skills from one instrument to another is already part of her growing musical assets. Although there are other instruments she prefers, such as the guitar and the charango (which has 10 strings!), she knows that what she is learning now with the violin will prepare her well for the future.

The atmosphere in the library is very lively come musical lesson time. There are friends who come along and keep company, reading while their friends practice.

Karl Jennings, Olivia’s father, is delighted with the training his daughter is getting. The library’s head of Youth Services, Denise Martens, comes downstairs during lessons to run other activities in adjacent rooms, which siblings often join.

In a city known for its art and music, and for the struggles of its many working-class families, the library provides a welcoming setting for volunteers to share the gift of music with a new generation.

Resurrección Espinosa-Frink lives in New London and the former director of Teatro Latino Estudiantil at the University of Rhode Island. To learn more about programs at the New London library email dmartens@plnl.org.

 

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