Elgin Youth Symphony program aims to break down barriers to classical music education

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One by one, the fourth-graders gasped with excitement as they each opened their cases of newly acquired instruments and had their first glimpse of the prizes inside.

Students at Oakhill Elementary School in Streamwood were the first participants in a pilot program launched by the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra. Starter Strings is a free program that offers instruction in classical music, in this case – or these cases – the violin, to students who would not otherwise have the opportunity.

“We have long understood that there are barriers to participating in classical music,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra. “Traditionally, it was for, honestly, a privileged audience, white with means.”

Starter Strings is a first step in solving this problem locally.

Matthew Sheppard, artistic director of EYSO and conductor of a youth symphony orchestra, teaches the first session of a school year.

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

“We want to remove the barriers for students who otherwise would not be able to take off,” he said.

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

With 49 fourth-graders in school, Sheppard thought they would be lucky to enroll seven. Principals were hoping for 10 to 15.

But 36 registered and attended the first three weeks of the course.

“We had an incredibly overwhelming response,” Sheppard said. “It kind of blew our socks off.”

Oakhill music teacher Kristine Cooper, who helps during the sessions with a few other teachers, said the children’s enthusiasm “warms my heart.”

“It just shows the kids want it. They want it,” she said. “But a lot of these families can’t afford it, so this free program is so great for them.”

Cooper said it was great for the kids as they learn “things they won’t have in my class.”

“Yes, we do a lot of instruments, and I can cram a huge amount of stuff in my limited time,” she said, “but it’s so beyond that.”

After two sessions of preparation and learning of some basics, the students received their instruments during the third week of lessons.

“The violin is not an instrument of immediate gratification,” Sheppard said. “Not that you need immediate gratification, but you want to feel like you’re growing and 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 held a violin before, let alone tried to play one.

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

Yet he was not discouraged.

“It’s pretty cool, so I want to keep going,” he said, although he was in no rush to get home and practice. “My arms are tired.”

The pilot program is funded by a combination of individual donations and regular fundraising. Use of rental instruments was offered.

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

“That’s a big part of the program’s goal, to remove that obstacle,” he said.

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

“We are going to let everyone know what these kids can do,” she said. “We’re going to show this.”


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