High schoolers teach music to underserved elementary students in the Beaverton School District.

COURTESY: PROJECT PRELUDE - Project Prelude brings high school volunteers to three Title I Beaverton elementary schools, where they teach violin and flute.Inside a portable classroom at McKinley Elementary School on a rainy Thursday afternoon, about 40 kids sing along to scales as a high school student plays them on his violin. The kids are boisterous, quick to call out questions to the handful of high school volunteers who walk around, sharing tips and techniques. Aside from one faculty moderator, there isn't an adult in sight.

This is Project Prelude, a by-student, for-student organization that provides free after-school violin and flute lessons to underprivileged elementary schools in the Beaverton School District. In operation since 2015, Project Prelude now serves Aloha-Huber Park K-8 School, McKinley Elementary School and Raleigh Hills K-8 School — all of which have Title I classification, meaning they receive extra funding from the federal government because they serve a high number of low-income families.

Isabelle Zheng, a senior at Catlin Gabel in Beaverton, founded the program halfway through her sophomore year. Zheng is the principal flutist for Portland Youth Philharmonic, and she was starting to come to an awareness of how lucky she was to attend private lessons and own her own instrument.

"I realized how expensive private lessons were, how expensive instruments were — and throughout my childhood, every time I looked at a newspaper or went online, I saw that the Beaverton School District, which I had been a part of for a long time, was constantly cutting its music programs and arts programs," Zheng said. "I saw that me, and a lot of people I knew that were high schoolers, could do something about it."

Zheng began emailing music teachers in the district, offering the voluntary help of her and her peers. The first teacher to respond was from Aloha-Huber Park, so Zheng started her pilot program there in the fall of 2016.

Engaging of a roomful of elementary schoolers proved difficult for Zheng and her peers at first, but they soon learned what did and did not work.

"It is really challenging, especially at first, because high schoolers don't command as much respect or attention as teachers do," she said. "But I think as we've evolved and figured out our teaching strategies, and adapted them for each school and each student, it's gotten a lot better in how we're able to serve our students."

There are no fees or barriers to entry for any student wanting to study flute or violin with Project Prelude. Zheng and her peers fundraise and partner with other music organizations to supply instruments, and all their work is done on a purely volunteer basis.

When Zheng talks to the parents of kids she teaches, she said she knows that the hard work is worth it.

"There were some kids that hadn't expressed any interest in music," she said. "But with this music class and a free opportunity to explore it, they developed a passion and began to focus on something. I thought that was pretty incredible."

Dishitha Magesh, a McKinley fourth-grader who attends Project Prelude classes and hopes to join a band someday, is already learning a lot about music.

"Since I was little, I always wanted to play violin," she said. "I've learned to play a few notes, and I have to say playing the violin is pretty hard. You have to switch your fingers to the right note, and that's the hardest part."

Project Prelude is planning its first benefit concert for January.

"We're busy trying to get the program together for that," Zheng said. "We have some people that we know in the music community performing, so it's hopefully a good way for us to raise some money for this program."

Once Zheng graduates high school this spring, Beaverton-area high school students will continue her mission with Project Prelude. As for Zheng: she isn't sure what she wants to study in college next, but she knows it probably won't be music.

"My flute teacher told me, if you have any interests besides music, don't pursue music," she said with a laugh. "But I really enjoy this kind of thing — starting the initiative, running the initiative, leading it — so I'd like to do something like that."

Blair Stenvick
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