A 5-town program grows young musicians

BRISTOL — Guiding children with stringed instruments from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to, say, Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” (No. 8 in B minor) requires a vast amount of knowledge and patience, plus, it would seem, a fair bit of magic.
But thanks to a collaboration between the Mount Abraham Unified School District Expanded Learning Program (ELP) and the Middlebury Community Music Center (MCMC), this is just the sort of magic that’s happening twice a week after school at Bristol Elementary.
“The ELP creates opportunities for students to participate in activities they otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in, especially rural kids,” said the program’s director, Mandy Chesley-Park.
The orchestra is a new addition to that program.
A few years ago Chesley-Park and her friend Sadie Brightman, who runs MCMC, were looking for ways to unite their efforts, Chesley-Park explained. When they began to imagine a strings program Brightman said, “I know just the guy for that.”
Ron White had recently moved to Vermont from Texas, bringing with him extensive experience with public school orchestra directing, and he was looking for teaching opportunities. After surveying the 5-Town orchestral landscape, he also had reached out to Brightman. In 2017 the ELP orchestra was born.
Six students between third and fifth grade signed up the first year. The five who returned this year now constitute the “advanced” group, which White teaches.
Eight additional students signed up as “beginners” this year and are taught by violinist Susan Mahoney.
Every stringed instrument is represented in the orchestra — violin, cello, bass and viola — and so are each of the 5-Towns — Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
Chesley-Park is excited by the program’s growth, she said, and looks forward to the possibility of adding an “intermediate” group next year.
There have been some obstacles, however, including instruction expenses and travel logistics.
“We want to make sure that no one is turned away,” Chesley-Park said. “No barricades. No haves or have-nots.”
But music instruments and lessons are expensive.
In an effort to create a program that families could afford, MCMC has lowered its usual prices and the ELP has chipped in some of the costs.
For some families that has meant being able to get a month’s worth of lessons for not much more than the price of a 30-minute violin lesson.
The program is also getting some help from the community.
“David Gusakov of Bristol, a Vermont Symphony (Orchestra) violinist, is the keeper of a small collection of child-size violins owned by the Five Town Friends of the Arts,” Mahoney explained. “He rents these for a modest price, so that students can experience beginning violin without too much expense. I just go to his house … and pick one up when needed.”
Transportation continues to be an issue, especially for kids who live outside of Bristol, but the ELP is working on it, White said.
In spite of that, things are going great, he added.
“We have some really talented kids who respond to instruction.”
White does wish he could see the kids more often, he said, but limited time hasn’t stopped him from thinking big.
“As we grow I’d like to do longer, more complex concerts — full-blown concerts,” he said. And not just watered-down arrangements, either, he added. “I’d like to do very good arrangements or even original versions.”
Like Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” — the “real one.”
But the more complex the music gets, the more expensive it can be to purchase, he said.
That is another obstacle the program will have to wrestle with in the coming years.
For now, though, parents are smitten.
“Susan and Ron have been so nurturing and supportive,” said Emily Verner, whose daughter Penny is a third-grader at Bristol Elementary. “They challenge the kids to work hard and take risks, and the end result has impressed us all. Penny busks in our front yard and has been making plans to continue playing during the summer. She has learned the fundamentals of playing, which have allowed her to start teaching herself how to play the songs that she likes to listen to. We’re so proud of her and the rest of the orchestra — they’re all amazing musicians.”
Janet Fuller’s daughter Harper Young, a fifth-grader at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro, has been with the orchestra since its beginning.
“Ron White has been the most positive influence for my daughter,” she said. “(He) teaches them how to be disciplined, to learn a craft and to work hard to achieve something…. I wanted Harper to learn to be disciplined and know what it takes to focus and strive to achieve something where she could understand that hard work does have a reward. Ron uses humor, expects the students to work hard and to be the best they can be in class. He is professional with them, but fun.”
Fuller will be forever grateful for the program, she added.
“This project gave (Harper) something that usually is for people with some means to be part of. I know she will take all the lessons she has learned from this project and apply it to future endeavors.”
And this is just the beginning, Chesley-Park said.
“We’re going to open the doors as wide as we can and say ‘Come on in.’ Some of these were kids who had literally never touched an instrument and now they play like kids with much more instruction. And when they play their concerts you can see the community saying, ‘These are our kids.’”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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