Milada Dvorakova, a senior at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, has played her viola on the Great Wall of China and performed in Puerto Rico and Italy.
Dvorakova isn't a musical prodigy, but she is a student in Wheaton College's Community School of the Arts, where she started in a kindermusik class at age 3. She's now a member of the School of the Arts' senior touring group, the Vivaldi Strings.
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If you goWhat: Community School of the Arts Christmas Concert of choirs, handbells and musical theater
When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22
Where: Wheaton College's Pierce Memorial Chapel, Washington and Franklin streets, Wheaton
Info: (630) 752-5567
Dvorakova doesn't plan to study music when she goes to college next fall, but she said the school will remain part of her life.
"I most definitely will be coming back here to visit my viola teacher and everyone in the program," she said. "I've always loved the sense of community here."
Started in 1970 as the Wheaton College Suzuki Program by former Wheaton student Rebecca (Fitz) Sandrock, who had studied Suzuki teaching methods in Japan, the Community School of the Arts has always put an emphasis on early childhood education.
More music and art programs were subsequently added to serve both children and adults, bringing enrollment to 1,700 last year, said Director Jody Grandlienard.
Suzuki has remained the school's single, largest program, with 439 students learning to play instruments by the Suzuki method last year. Before they can read music, they learn to play by hearing it, Grandlienard explained.
"The main difference is you start a child very young, typically between the ages of 4 and 6," she said. "The parents are deeply involved."
The Community School of the Arts also offers traditional music lessons, early childhood music and art programs, visual arts, musical drama, and Beethoven Buddies for special-needs students to learn music.
Students come from 49 towns and a number of them have been with the school 10 years or more, Grandlienard said.
"We can provide opportunities for students they can't find elsewhere by taking lessons in someone's homes," she said.
Art at many levels
Students are given multiple opportunities to perform at venues that include large-scale concerts. The school's choir, handbell and musical theater students will display their talents at a free Christmas concert at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, in Pierce Memorial Chapel on campus. Suzuki and visual art students staged a music and art festival the week before.
Many of the longtime students like Dvorakova have grown up together, taking group classes as well as private lessons.
"We're a community school," Grandlienard said. "You're involved in learning together with people your age."
The majority of the school's 39 instructors hold advanced degrees, and many are trained in the Suzuki method. Students who begin as toddlers and continue through high school may have the same instructor the entire time, so teachers come to know their students well. Jennifer Nagle, the school's visual arts director, said she often knows what lessons will click with certain students.
"What needs to come out of one student may be different than what needs to come out of another student," she said. "I really feel they (the school's teachers) approach learning in such a healthy way."
Some Community School of the Arts students go on to work professionally in the arts, but that is not the mission of the school, Grandlienard said.
"We're not looking for the talented people," she said. "We just want to help each one along in their journey with the arts."
The school holds two, 15-week semesters a year for its regular classes and programs, but also offers more short-term options for people to explore the arts. Summer camps allow students to try out the piano, harp, theater, crocheting and a range of other topics.
A monthly visual arts workshop started this year offers opportunities for anyone in sixth grade on up to take a one-time class in art forms that include calligraphy, children's book illustration and Lithuanian eggs.
"We really welcome people to come and explore. We've added a lot of entry level programs," Grandlienard said.
As part of a Christian college, the Community School of the Arts doesn't hide its faith but doesn't promote it, either. Concerts may open with prayer, but little else is overtly Christian and students of all faiths are welcome, Grandlienard said.
"We are interested in building character in the lives of our students," she said. "We do want to teach the students to give back."
String students play in area retirement homes during an annual Community Service Day. Every other year, the school holds a music-a-thon for the students to raise funds to help children in Third World countries.
Through a Community Outreach for Developing Artists program, the school provides weekly music classes for disadvantaged preschool and kindergarten students, Grandlienard said. The program serves about 340 youngsters at World Relief DuPage and West Chicago Elementary District 33.
District 33 students found to have a special interest in music are given the opportunity to take semiprivate Suzuki violin lessons.
Rocio Fisher, principal of Gary Elementary School in District 33, said without the CSA classes the half-day kindergarten students in her school would receive no music instruction.
"The kids absolutely love it. The teachers do, too," she said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for our families."
The CODA program for needy students is funded by grants. The school also holds an annual campaign that raised more than $50,000 last year to provide needs-based scholarships to 65 students, Grandlienard said.
Lessons for life
String students who advance have an opportunity to audition for the Vivaldi Strings. Sareena Daniel of Winfield, who started taking Suzuki violin lessons at age 4, said the Vivaldi Strings became a goal after she had been in the program a few years.
"It's really cool now to be a senior in the program," she said.
She's performed with the Vivaldi Strings at weddings and traveled with the group to Paris, Italy, Puerto Rico and Montreal. Also a member of Sinsonic Orchestra at Wheaton North High School where she is a senior, Daniel said she doesn't plan to study music in college, but her enrollment in the Community School of the Arts has given her friends outside her high school and instilled in her lifelong lessons.
She credited it with helping her to learn to organize and prioritize her time, build determination and tackle large goals.
"It's a lot more than just how to play the violin," she said. "Music has helped in everything we do."
Stephanie Wong, a junior at Naperville North High School, has been a Suzuki piano student at the Community School of the Arts for 13 years and taken a several other art programs there as well.
"It's a very diverse program," she said. "It has taught me that trying my best and working hard will always pay off."
Dvorakova, who traveled to China last summer to perform with other Vivaldi Strings students at the Tianjin International Children's Culture & Arts Festival, admitted that when she was younger she didn't always want to practice her viola. She credits instructor Lisa Hirschmusl with instilling in her a love of music.
The Community School of the Arts offers opportunities to people with different levels of commitment to arts, she said.
"You can even just come to concerts as an audience member," she said. "It's such a great facet of the Wheaton community."
For more information on the Community School for the Arts, call (630) 752-5567.