Normally, a dozen or so young violin players tapping or playing a single note over and over with no particular rhythm might soon be grating to the ears.
To Ashley Stanfield or Victoria Olson or Leslie Hochsprung, it's sweet music courtesy of a bunch of 4-year-olds.
Stanfield and assistant Shupei Wang were at Independence's Benton Elementary School last Friday after school to give the second violin lesson with preschoolers. It's the String Sprouts program from Heartland Chamber Music. Students chosen for the program in underserved areas receive 32 weekly group violin lessons – for free – annually for five years.
Parents or caregivers are with the kids each lesson, helping them maneuver the little violins and bows, and as part of the program learn how to help the young students both academically and emotionally through lessons. At its heart, String Sprouts is designed to support kindergarten readiness.
“We're really targeting kids at a critical age,” said Olson, executive director of Heartland Chamber Music. “It works the hand-eye coordination, and there's so much research about the musical elements and developing the brain.”
“There's no transportation barriers; we take the program to them.”
This is the second year for the Sprouts program in the metro area. Heartland selected Benton as a new site this year after four sites hosted lessons last year. Sixteen children are enrolled at Benton, part of the 80 across five sites (up from 56 last year). In April, the young violinists get to play in a concert with the UMKC Conservatory.
The pilot program was created in Omaha, and Olson said they have enrolled up to 1,500 students at 13 sites there. All KC-area instructors are Heartland alumni – “high-end musicians,” Olson said.
Students are fitted with a small violin and taught step by step how to hold and place the instrument and the bow.
Hochsprung, Benton's principal, said she feels “very lucky” to have the Sprouts program, knowing full well the benefits go far beyond whether or not a child sticks with instrumental music.
“I visited a classroom last year, so I knew what the possibilities would be,” Hochsprung said while watching last Friday's lesson. “Kids are going to be exposed not only to music, but to a routine, practice, engagement with parents. They may not be a musician, but it does affect their brain, and there's the ability for the whole family to be included.”
Kody Moats said his daughter Kylynn “hoped and hoped” to be selected for String Sprouts.
“We showed up (the first day), and she was ready; she'd been talking about it,” he said. “I had band in school, but we never had this level of hands-on, never this involved. We can help them through it.”
Stanfield, a violist by trade who is married to a concert violinist and violin teacher and has a 4-year-old son, acknowledges she had some questions about the Sprouts program when she first learned of it. She started playing strings as a fifth grader in the Shawnee Mission School District (her husband Keith started as a 3-year-old in England).
“But I have friends that taught last year. (The curriculum) is a genius combination of two philosophies. They left no stone unturned in what works.”