“Fostering a Lifelong Love of Music”: Violin Program Expands to Anchor Point Students

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Homer OPUS students perform at the Alaska Superintendents Association conference at Lands End Resort on September 30, 2022. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

Three dozen kindergarten and first graders, accompanied by their guardians, brandished hot glue guns and cardboard cutouts of violins in the gymnasium at Chapman Elementary School in Anchor Point.

Students made three-dimensional papier-mâché instruments to paint and use to learn rhythm, finger position and technique – and the equally important art of instrument care.

This is the first time that elementary students in Chapman have learned to play the violin in school, thanks to the nonprofit Homer OPUSwho expanded its school violin program last month with the help of grants from Carnegie Hall, the Alaska State Council of the Arts and the Rasmuson Foundation.

music students
Students study music as part of the Homer OPUS program. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

The program is inspired by the Musical program El Sistema of Venezuela and it puts violins in the hands of young people, aiming to use music education as a vehicle for social change.

The school-based violin program has been active in Homer schools for about a decade, and Anchor Point parents say they are happy to see the program expand to their own children.

Chapman Kindergarten student Jack O’Larey, five, was in the gym with his grandmother Sandy last month for the instrument-making workshop. Dummy violins like the one he made will be close companions to these young students over the coming months.

Sandy, her grandmother, was thrilled. She said she couldn’t find a violin teacher for Jack in Homer, a 15-mile drive away.

music students
Students study music as part of the Homer OPUS program. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

“I think music is very important,” she said. “He’s been interested in music since he was about three years old and I don’t want him to lose that glow.”

Violin making was the first step in the school’s new curriculum. Then kindergartens and first graders will get to know their cardboard violins. Next semester they will have their own real wooden ones, which they will practice in class twice a week.

Clayton Holland is superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. He said the Homer OPUS program is inclusive of all students, regardless of ability or financial situation.

“The difference it made in them and their confidence, their leadership, their understanding [and] working together was the main thing I noticed,” Holland said. “I think that’s one of the main goals of OPUS: not just the music, which is so important, but what it does for the brain. [and] also the skills that students acquire by working together.

musical instruments
The instruments of a student from the Homer OPUS program. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

OPUS also offers violin programs at Fireweed Academy and Paul Banks Elementary School in Homer, as well as after-school programs and an adult orchestra. Holland said a program like OPUS that comes to schools is important, especially when school budgets are cut across the state and nation.

Miranda Weiss agreed. She is on the board of directors of Homer OPUS and described the cardboard violin-making day as “controlled chaos”.

She said the goal of OPUS is not to create professional musicians, but to instill cognitive and social skills in students.

“That’s why we start with the youngest,” she says. “That’s really what we’re looking for, to help children become better learners and also better citizens. And then as they get older in the programs, we add skill and musicianship, and we really foster a lifelong love of music.

It seems to have worked for Homer’s students.

Maggie Mae Gaylord, 16, started playing the violin at the age of 4. She now plays with the Bayside Buskers, a youth ensemble made up mostly of current and former OPUS students. They performed at the local senior center, hospital and animal shelter.

music students
Students study music as part of the Homer OPUS program. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

“For me, music is a community thing,” she said. “It’s a way to connect with people and play music with friends, and also give back to the community.”

Abimael Melendez is the new director of the strings program at OPUS. He grew up in Venezuela, where he fell in love with the violin, thanks to the El Sistema program.

“I was so dedicated, and in that moment I knew that after high school I wanted to dedicate myself to music,” Melendez said.

Today, Melendez teaches violin to all ages, from kindergarteners in school music lessons to octogenarians in the adult orchestra.

“We have a responsibility as teachers to go above and beyond to provide the best possible tools for students and the community,” he said. “We have a real responsibility as teachers to change lives.”

He said OPUS hopes to add second graders to the Chapman program next year.

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