April 12, 2004

Young musicians to perform with famed Cavani quartet

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- You might think making fox faces with your fingers and rhythmically chanting "Wish I had a chocolate cookie" have nothing to do with learning to play the violin. You would, however, be wrong.

A hand that looks like a fox face is a hand that can correctly wield a violin's bow, said Paula M. Allison, an elfin woman with the energy of a 10-year-old and the gusto to match, as she puts a troupe of third-graders at Carbondale's Thomas School through their paces. As for rhythm, "If you can't feel the music -- the pulse-- you will have a hard time playing it," she said.

Media Advisory

Reporters are welcome at rehearsals of the John Thomas String Project, held from 12:45 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mondays and Fridays in the cafeteria of Thomas School. Those wishing to attend should call Paula Allison at 618/453-2541, ext. 2, or 618/536-8742 to make arrangements.

Allison, who teaches in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's School of Music and directs its Egyptian Suzuki School, dreams of one day having every child at Thomas School learn to play the violin. Right now, though, she'll settle for teaching these particular kids, whose first music lesson took place Feb. 23, to perform "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in a May 2 concert with the Cavani String Quartet, an internationally acclaimed chamber music group.

"There's just a little bit of pressure," she said cheerfully.

But with the Cavani ensemble scheduled to visit campus twice during the term, she and some of her music faculty colleagues hit on The Big Idea. Instead of bemoaning the lack of public school programs that teach children to play stringed instruments, they would start one themselves, using the prospect of playing with the quartet to spark interest and serve as a reward.The John Thomas String Project -- two 45-minute violin lessons each week for nine weeks with students in Karen R. DeVantier's third-grade class -- "wasn't even on the horizon" when SIUC's spring semester started, Allison said.

"We just kind of jumped in -- it was a leap of faith," Allison said. "We had 30 old (child-sized) instruments, which one of the parents in the (Suzuki) program fixed for us, and we had four undergraduate string majors (sophomores Lee E. England Jr. and Maria L. Stevenson, senior Mary F. Wright and junior Hyung Sung "Christine" Yang) willing to assist me in teaching the class."

The undergraduate component was key, Allison said, and not just because she couldn't do it all herself.

"Part of our mission (at the School of Music) is to educate the next generation of teachers," Allison said. "In this class, our students would be dealing with everything from the technical specifics to classroom management. After this experience, they would know how to walk in and start string students. So it was win-win for everyone."

The faculty settled on Thomas School as the place to hold the class because it has a large minority population.

"As a society, we need to develop the potential in all children, not just those who come from families with a little extra money for music lessons. And music can change lives. I've worked with children who couldn't read or write or add or subtract, but they could play the violin. These children, who weren't 'achievers,' who weren't 'smart,' were transformed, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of their peers who admired and respected them because they were good at this.""These are children who could benefit from an experience they might not otherwise have," said Allison, who started her teaching career more than 20 years ago in a St. Louis inner-city school.

Allison relies on two strategies in teaching novice violin players to master their instruments.

First: Divide and conquer.

"You divide something like 'Twinkle' up into achievable chunks," Allison said.

So at Thomas School, the first set of twinkles became "The Flowers Song" (named for the principal of the school); the next phrase turned into "The Basketball Boogie" -- "so the guys won't roll their eyes after all those flowers," Allison said.

"It's a step-by-step progression, and at each step, the kids are always successful. Then when you put it all together, you have all the elements of 'Twinkle.'"

Second, Allison works at catching her miniature maestros being violin players.

"Pia, you look terrific in rest position," she'll call out in the middle of class.

"Robert, you have a beautiful bow hand."

"Bravo, Owen, bravo!"

And the first time her virtuosos-in-training made it all the way through the tune, she sang out,

"You have just fingered all of Twinkle! I am so proud of you! Please take a bow."

Watching from the back of the lunchroom's stage, Dia L. Parr, who taught most of these children when they were second-graders, said she noticed their faces as Allison praised them.

"There's a glow," Parr said. "And they're so in tune with what they're doing. That sort of thing carries over into the classroom."

DeVantier, this year's teacher, agreed.

"They're even willing to give up recess to do this -- that's how important it is," she said. "It makes classroom management much easier on Mondays and Fridays (the days that lessons take place) -- Friday especially, because it can be a zoo with the weekend coming up.

"It always concerns me when there's talk about (budget) cuts in the arts, because the arts drive the curriculum just as much as reading and mathematics. This program is a real good indicator of that -- it's enhanced the other areas for sure."

While this term's lessons end with the Cavani concert at 3 p.m. May 2 in the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center, Allison would love to see the John Thomas Strings Project overflow the school's walls and flood the region with a wave of music.

"The children in Southern Illinois are as bright as those anywhere in the U.S. -- the talent is there, it's just raw," she said. "It's coal before it becomes the diamond.

"The strings project is a prototype -- it's not just pie in the sky. We could do this with all our children, using our students and those same 30 violins over and over. The ultimate goal is to have children all over the region discover that they could have careers in music and be able to go away to college and compete with students who grew up in major metropolitan areas (where exposure to all things musical is plentiful)."

But, she said, even those who play only for themselves would have something they could keep forever.

"Music transforms lives," Allison said. "It's part of the process of becoming a well-rounded human being."

Improving the quality of life for residents of the region and serving others are among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.