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Strings attached: Group works to build regional youth orchestra program

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, August 30, 2014

They say the difference between a violin and a fiddle is simple: you play a violin on Sunday morning and a fiddle on Saturday night.

But to play at all, first you have to learn.

Eyes and Ears

EYES AND EARS – Nine-year-old Alexia Cervantes and her fellow musicians have a year of study under their belts with the Wise County String Ensemble. Seventeen youngsters began the program last year, and organizers are looking to expand it countywide this school year. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Giving children an opportunity to learn how to play the violin is a passion for Robert and Carolyn Marlett – and they’re looking for some help to take a successful Bridgeport program countywide this fall.

The Marletts moved to the Lake Bridgeport area when Robert retired after a career as a professor of land use and management at Texas Tech University. Carolyn taught first grade in Lubbock, and then in Wise County, for more than 30 years.

Ready to Make Music

READY TO MAKE MUSIC – Some of the students in the string ensemble that began last year gathered for a studio portrait at the Messenger this week. On the front row (from left) are Alexia Cervantes, Andy Bitsko, Reece Sparks, (middle) Erick Macias, Brianna Hernandez, Shande Contreras, Maximus Uribe, (back) Harrison Wood, Dakota Whitbeck, Matthew Bitsko and Emily Wood. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

They tried to start a strings class a few years ago, consulting with a University of North Texas professor and even getting the Denton High School orchestra to come play at Bridgeport Middle School. But for some reason, the interest wasn’t there.

Last year they decided to try again – and this time, something clicked.

“We put flyers out into the elementary and intermediate schools, hoping for four to six sets of parents,” Robert said. “We had 52 show up. We were overwhelmed.”

Carolyn said the crowd at the Bridgeport Library’s Jackson room filled every seat, with people sitting on the floor and spilling out the door.

“That’s when we realized, ‘Oh, there is some interest!’” she said.

That initial meeting resulted in 17 students who bought instruments and showed up for lessons throughout the school year.

“What we said from the beginning is, get an instrument, and we’ll give you the lessons,” Robert said.

Donna Harris, owner of Harris Music on the Decatur Square, worked a deal with a supplier in Fort Worth to allow the youngsters to rent their instrument for $20 a month – with $18 going toward purchase. As a bonus, as the child grows they can change out the instrument for one that fits them better.

MASTER TEACHER – Chico resident Coleman Smith plays and teaches all over the world but enjoys bringing the youth strings program to his home turf. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Coleman Smith of Chico, a champion fiddler who teaches and performs fulltime, agreed to serve as the instructor.

“As a retired elementary teacher, I was very nervous to see how he would be able to relate to the kids and get along with them,” Carolyn said. “He has a reputation of being awesome in playing his instrument – but could he relate to the kids?

“Within 15 minutes after he had begun his lesson, I was like, ‘Whew! We’re OK.’ He’s done a really good job.”

Robert is amazed at the way the children have taken to the classical training.

“We’d have these kids come in, not knowing a thing about one of the most complicated musical instruments in the world, and within a month, they’re coming in and sitting down properly, setting up and starting to play,” he said.

Smith, who earned a degree in violin performance from Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., has been teaching fiddle, mandolin and guitar for nearly 15 years. As a performer, he has traveled the world, developing a unique style that fuses jazz, Gypsy swing, Celtic, bluegrass and western swing.

As a youngster growing up in Wise County, he was a member of the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra. This past May, one of the highlights for his students was getting to attend, and be introduced, at that group’s year-end concert at TCU’s Ed Landreth Auditorium.

“Our 17 kids, dressed in their black pants or skirts, and white shirts, sat in reserved seating, right up front, and stood when they were recognized,” Robert said. “So they’ve kind of tasted this.”

Carolyn said the way the kids have responded is wonderful. But it is the parents’ reaction that has really surprised them.

“When we took the kids in for the Youth Symphony, at different points parents came up, giving us big hugs and saying ‘I didn’t know this existed! This is wonderful. My child needs to be part of this. I’ve never heard anything like this before out of kids!’” she laughed. “They could see instantly that this is worth doing for their kids.”

LOOKING TO EXPAND

A recital at the end of May in Bridgeport brought in about $300 in donations. With a few other sponsors, the program “just about broke even” last year, Robert said.

This year, they’re planning to put out flyers in both the Decatur and Bridgeport schools, looking for interest from kids in grades 2-5. Marlett said it may take as many as three classes to accommodate them all – and it will certainly take more money to keep the lessons free.

“It takes about $4,000 for a class of 20 students, per year,” he said. “If we have three classes, that’s $12,000 to get us to next May.”

To achieve that, they’ve created a not-for-profit corporation, the Music and Arts Foundation, opened a bank account and set up a post office box. The group has been offered rehearsal space at Weatherford College’s Wise County campus, and Smith has said he’s willing to teach both beginners and advanced classes, even individual lessons, if the interest is there.

One of the Foundation’s board members, Gerre Joiner, believes strongly that it will be successful if people just know about it. That belief is echoed by fellow board members Robert Ryan and Jerry St. John of Runaway Bay.

“There’s a void in strings in this area,” said Joiner, senior adult minister at First Baptist Church in Decatur. “There are people living out here, and they grew up in an orchestra program and they know what it is. I think if we present a strong plan, support is not going to be a problem.”

Marlett said people can get in on the ground floor by donating, becoming “patrons” of what could develop into a Wise County Youth Orchestra.

Sponsorships are available at the Platinum ($1,000 and up), Gold ($500 to $1,000) and Silver ($100 to $500) levels – but any donation is needed and appreciated. All of it will go toward lessons and other costs for the kids in the program. Donors will be recognized at the youth violin ensemble spring recital.

“Our goal, regardless whether it’s Decatur or Paradise, Bridgeport or Chico or wherever – is to get these kids into a string program,” he said.

The 501(C)3 not-for-profit corporation has an account at First State Bank in Bridgeport. Donations can be mailed to the Music and Arts Program, P.O. Box 400, Bridgeport, TX 76426.

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