Elgin Youth Symphony program aims to remove roadblocks to classical music education

One by one, fourth-graders gasped with excitement as they each opened their recently acquired instrument cases and got their first looks at the prizes inside.

The students at Oakhill Elementary School in Streamwood were the first participants in a pilot program started by the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra. Starter Strings is a free program that brings classical music education, in this case — or these cases — the violin, to students who otherwise might not have the opportunity.

“For a long time, we've understood there are obstacles to participating in classical music,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra. “Traditionally, it's been for, honestly, a privileged, white audience with means.”

Starter Strings is a first step in addressing that at a grass-roots level.

Matthew Sheppard, EYSO's artistic director and youth symphony conductor, is teaching the first school-year-long session.

“We know there are roadblocks to music instruction, especially at EYSO where we don't have a ground level,” Sheppard said. “People come in with at least a year or two of experience on their instruments, if not seven, eight, or nine years.

“We want to remove the roadblocks to students who otherwise wouldn't get off the ground,” he said.

EYSO worked with the Elgin Area School District U-46 school to offer the program, which meets once a week after school. It was opened to all interested fourth-graders. The students received instruments that they could take home and use for the year for free.

With 49 fourth-graders at the school, Sheppard thought they would be lucky to get seven of them to sign up. School administrators were hoping for 10 to 15.

But 36 signed up and have attended the first three weeks of classes.

“We got such an amazingly overwhelming response,” Sheppard said. “It kind of blew our socks off.”

Oakhill music teacher Kristine Cooper, who helps during the sessions along with a couple of other teachers, said the enthusiasm from the kids “warms my heart.”

“It just shows the kids want it. They're craving it,” she said. “But a lot of these families can't afford it on their own, so this free program is so awesome for them.”

Cooper said it's great for the kids because they are learning “stuff that they're not going to get in my classroom.”

“Yes, we do lots of instruments, and I can cram an immense amount of stuff into my limited time,” she said, “but this is so far above and beyond.”

After two sessions of laying the groundwork and learning some basics, students received their instruments during the third week of class.

“Violin is not an immediate gratification instrument,” Sheppard said. “Not that you need the immediate gratification, but you want to feel like you're progressing and you're learning. So that's what we focus on every week.”

Like just about every other kid in the class, 9-year-old Jorge Rodriguez had never before held a violin, let alone try to play one.

“I thought it was going to be easy, and it turns out it's the complete opposite,” he said.

Still, he was undeterred.

“It's pretty cool, so I want to keep going,” he said, though he wasn't in a hurry to go home and practice. “My arms are tired.”

The pilot program is funded by a combination of individual donations and regular fundraising. The use of the rental instruments was donated.

Larson said the EYSO has plans to grow the program by expanding to other schools while keeping it free for families.

“That's a big part of the point of the program, removing that obstacle,” he said.

For Cooper, she can't wait to unleash the kids at their Spring Sing concert.

“We're gonna let everybody know what these kids can do,” she said. “We're gonna show this off.”

  Oakhill Elementary fourth-grade students, including Leslie Andrade, center, hold their violins under their chins for the first time during an Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Starter Strings class. Rick West/
  Kristine Cooper, music teacher at Oakhill Elementary School in Streamwood, works with Tristan Ramirez during an Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Starter Strings after-school violin class. Rick West/
  Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra artistic director and Youth Symphony conductor Matthew Sheppard helps Jorge Rodriguez demonstrate the proper way to hold a bow during a starter violin class. Rick West/
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