September 10, 2009

School of Music launches Cairo String Program

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The School of Music at Southern Illinois University Carbondale takes its musical mission a step further this fall with the introduction of the Cairo String Program.

Based on the successful John Thomas String Program at Thomas School in Carbondale -- a program then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn named a model program in his 2006 Violin Initiative -- the Cairo program will put violins in the hands of second and third graders and provide them with free instruction. The program begins later this month.

Paula Melton, director of the SIUC Community Music School, the SIUC Egyptian Suzuki School and the John Thomas String Program, said her inspiration came from school children in Cairo itself. The John Thomas Strings touring group -- a group of students who voluntarily give up one recess a week for extra practice -- visited Cairo three times in recent years. The audience reaction, Melton said, is always profound.

“The are completely silent (during the performance),” she said, adding that at least one student approached her post-performance about learning violin in Cairo.

The students aren’t the only one who wants violins in Cairo schools. Melton said she broached the subject to the owners of the Bearden Violin Shop in St. Louis, and voilà and bravo!, the owners presented the fledgling program with a gift of 20 violins for immediate use.

“That is a wonderful example of how community members can get together and change the path of education,” Melton said. She noted that in Carbondale, the program launched on the proverbial wing and a prayer -- that is, before it was fully funded. With this gift of violins to children in Cairo who want to play them, Melton said she is ready to take that leap of faith again.

But what’s the big deal? Why violins? Melton said experience proves that stringed instruments especially appeal to children, including and even especially children who don’t necessarily excel in other areas of school. She said that, with the violin, it isn’t just the music, but also the way it is made.

“When you tear into your violin and your music with passion, with emotion, even with anger, people applaud. If you tear into your classmate on the playground with anger, that doesn’t get the same response,” she said. “Children learn to express themselves through music, and the violin is a very kinetic instrument, very athletic. That appeals to children.”

Melton stressed that children who put their time into violin see a worthwhile return almost immediately.

“It changes how they see themselves and how their classmates see them,” she said. “Children who don’t see themselves as leaders or who wouldn’t be seen that way are finding another side of themselves.”

The program also helps SIUC music students who may need or want experience in teaching music to school children, Melton said.

“What we are doing is matching needs and resources,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

So, what does the Cairo Strings Program need? Money, of course. The donations will maintain and upgrade the musical equipment, defray operational expenses and help ensure that a violin program will have a place in Cairo public schools.

For more information, contact the School of Music at 618/536-8742. Send donations to the SIU Foundation-Cairo Strings at 1235 Douglas Drive, Colyer Hall, Mailcode 6805, Carbondale, IL, 62901.