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Teachers revitalize music program

Enrollment in Chocachatti Elementary's string instrument program, once at 200, had dropped to 30. With some new ideas and new teachers, it's back up to 75.

By LOGAN NEILL
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002


To the budding beginners in Chocachatti Elementary's string instrument program, it seemed to take forever. Their eyes dancing with delight, the young pupils in Jocelyn Bell's beginning cello class squirmed and fidgeted as their instructor began lifting the precious instruments from their cases.

"Not so fast," their teacher urged. "I want you to show me how we hold and care for our cellos."

The children held their arms out, just as they had been taught, in an imaginary embrace. One by one, Bell gently tucked a shiny new instrument in their grasp. But it was 5-year-old Jordan Williams who first seized the moment. With his thumb and forefinger, he strummed across the strings and exclaimed, "I just played music!"

That, of course, has been the hope behind a program that has been a cornerstone of the school's music and fine arts curriculum since it opened in 1999. Perceived as a unique enrichment to the educational goals of the school, the idea was met with enthusiasm from students and parents alike.

But despite its lofty aims, many thought the elective program never quite lived up to its expectations. Participation dropped gradually until, by the end of school last spring, fewer than 30 students remained. That was down from more than 200 who had initially signed up.

"A lot of it was because it wasn't well-organized," said Carol Ballard. "A lot of kids got bored with it over time and simply lost interest in it, so it was running out of steam."

Ballard, an exceptional-student education teacher, was recently appointed by principal Michael Tellone to oversee the program and to look for ways to revitalize it.

Ballard spent the summer attending a violin camp sponsored by the highly regarded Suzuki Institute, which is internationally noted for its children's music programs. She became enamored with the institute's teaching philosophy, which seeks to build confidence through group participation dynamics.

Said Ballard: "The Suzuki Method puts a lot of emphasis on positive involvement, making certain that children always have a goal that they can work toward. I felt that our program needed to provide that kind of guidance if it was ever going to be meaningful to students.

Ballard found other positives that suited the Chocachatti strings program, including its emphasis on citizenship and mentoring by experienced students to novices.

During the late summer, Ballard began assembling a staff for the program. She sought out Bell, a USF music performance major, to teach cello. She also brought aboard Spring Hill violin teacher Charlotte Murrim to oversee the twice weekly group lessons. Fellow teachers Sally Lyman, Liz Adams, Pat Rich and Emily Sloan also agreed to help.

"We're on the right track," Ballard said. "We have the beginnings of a string program that I think everyone in the school is going to be proud of. One thing, we'll be doing a lot more performances, so people in the school will at least get the opportunity to hear the musicians."

About 75 students now are enrolled in the program, including many kindergarten through second graders who were ineligible in past years.

"Playing a cello seemed like something really fun to do," said 6-year-old Madison Peeler as she sat inspecting her new instrument. "I can't wait to get real good because when you play music for people, it makes them happy."

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