Fourth-graders at Lyon Elementary School are playing a game of follow the leader.
These Tacoma kids are not at recess, or even in P.E.
They take their cues from music teacher Monica Valentine, who demonstrates proper step-by-step technique for holding and playing a violin.
Florencia Gonzales-Martinez said she’s excited to learn how to play. Her only previous musical experience was with the recorder, a familiar wind instrument for children.
Eddie Babauta said he likes learning to use his bow. Anna Cervantes demonstrates with her arms.
“It has a great sound,” adds classmate Monica Amaya. “It’s fun. And you get to learn more stuff.”
Teaching kids about musical “stuff” is Valentine’s passion.
She teaches violin to fourth-graders at three Tacoma elementary schools: Lyon, Grant and Blix. At a fourth school, Arlington Elementary, she teaches fifth-graders.
In an era of shrinking education budgets, some school districts have no orchestra programs – not even at their high schools. So it’s notable that several Pierce County districts provide an opportunity for elementary students to learn to play traditional orchestra instruments.
“We have strings in every elementary school,” said Michael Sandner, director of arts education and curriculum integration in the Spanaway-based Bethel School District. “The teachers are all kid magnets. They are all wonderful musicians themselves.”
In Tacoma, group violin lessons are part of the music curriculum at the four elementary campuses. Individual schools applied for grants to help purchase the half-size and quarter-size instruments. The district supports the program by providing a teacher.
All students in the designated grades at the four schools have a chance to play violin for part of the school year, and to demonstrate their skills before the whole school community.
Tacoma’s other elementary schools have limited offerings for kids with instrumental ambitions. Fifth-graders can sign up for a before-school orchestra or band program at one of five middle schools: First Creek, Jason Lee, Mason, Meeker or Truman. An instrument scholarship program can assist students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The current strings program for Tacoma’s young children launched in 1999 with a grant from the Save the Music Foundation, Valentine said. It expanded with a grant from the Tacoma-based Gary E. Milgard Family Foundation.
Valentine said the goal isn’t to turn out virtuosos.
“It’s an opportunity for them to experience music – the concentration, focus, teamwork and joy that comes from making music,” she said. “It’s really teaching life skills.”
She teaches students to play from memory until they learn to read musical notes. Just a few weeks into the school year, her students can join in simple tunes like “Pop Goes the Weasel,” plucking the strings in pizzicato style rather than pulling the bow across them.
They start by learning about the instruments and how to respect them.
“On the first day, when they open their cases, they are in awe,” she said. “We talk about how this is an instrument, not a toy. They learn how to handle it and how to take care of it.”
Valentine formerly taught violin to students at McKinley Elementary, which was closed at the end of last school year as a cost-saving measure.
“The kids wanted to know, ‘Where are the violins going?’ ” Valentine said.
The answer: They followed the students, and their teacher, to Lyon and Blix.
Elsewhere in Pierce County, the Puyallup School District offers orchestra beginning in fifth grade. Classes are taught at the junior high schools; elementary students who want to play take the bus there.
In the Bethel School District, elementary students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades can begin instruction on a stringed orchestra instrument.
Last year, the program included 400 beginning fourth-graders. The school district provides some cellos or basses, while some students choose a rent-to-own program through local music stores.
Sandner credits a supportive school board for keeping the elementary orchestra program intact through some tough budget cuts.
“We are in a rural community, where there’s not a lot for kids to do,” he said. “So our school board really supports the arts and athletic activities. That’s what builds community in our schools.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 email@example.com