An early start at strings
Beginning with violin lessons for its four kindergarten classes this year, Edwards Elementary School is piloting an orchestra program that has the potential to be replicated at schools not only across Newberg, but also countywide if things fall into place.
Just about midway through its first year, the Joy Music program hit an important milestone two weeks ago when the students finally traded in the tissue-box replica violins they've been training on since September for the genuine article.
"I think I've been more excited than them because I've been ready to give them the real thing," said Julia Pridavka, who was hired to be the program's violin instructor. "It's been really fun because finally they get to make noise on them."
Perhaps best of all is that the start-up costs of the program, including the purchase of instruments and staff salary, were covered by the nonprofit Yamhill Enrichment Society (YES).
"I think it's really awesome because I don't think kids get enough of instruments outside of school, especially," said music teacher Michelle Ericksen, who splits her time between Edwards and Newberg High School. "For core music teachers, it really bums us out if this is the only experience they get with instruments, so getting them to a point where they can play a violin with some proficiency is really cool. It's another level that a lot of kids don't normally get."
YES approached the Newberg School District about replicating the Bravo Youth Orchestra program in Portland, which is modeled after the El Sistema program created by Venezuelan educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu as a way to provide free music education for underprivileged children.
The task fell to Edwards music teacher Janis Dodson to research Bravo and work with a steering committee to get Joy Music off the ground this school year, which she did with approximately $19,000 from YES.
"The most important thing is being able to put instruments in the hands of kids who might not otherwise get to have that instrument experience," Dodson said. "We're looking at the research that says when you put an instrument in the hand of a child, gains from math and reading skills follow."
Dodson added that Joy Music will keep track of the program's impact on academics, but stressed that the students also learn valuable social and behavioral lessons, like responsibility, and other programs have seen attendance improve and referrals decline.
Pridavka, who studied music education and performance at North Texas University, said she has thoroughly enjoyed providing the classroom instruction so far, even before she distributed the actual violins.
She got the idea for the box violins from Bravo and reports the results have been excellent.
"The boxes really taught them how to care for the instrument," Pridavka said. "They are so very careful with the instruments. It did wonders."
Dodson credits Pridavka for providing the specialized instruction that leads to those magic learning moments for kids. And by weaving violin into the school's broader music curriculum, essentially using the violin to teach the same lessons, both said the integration has been pretty much seamless.
The program will expand next year to include instruction for first-grade students and Dodson and YES have already budgeted the necessary $23,000.
In year three, the plan is to hire more staff to begin an after-school orchestra program for students in grades 2-5 that will also offer instruction on other instruments, like the viola and cello. Dodson said YES is writing grant proposals to raise the approximately $130,000 required to expand the school's inventory of instruments and hire more instructors.
Dodson and YES would like to begin showcasing the program to other schools as soon as next year in hopes they will be inspired to start their own programs to start in the coming years. In fact, the full name of the program is the Joy Music Youth Orchestra of Yamhill County.
"I think we have to demonstrate a successful year," Dodson said. "Then people will go, 'Oh! We have to have that.'"