Spelling, math, science . . . and violin?
Starting in late September, all 46 first-graders at Bloomington's Fairview Elementary School added a new subject to their regular class schedules: violin.
Through an outreach program supervised by Brenda Brenner, an associate professor of music education at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, first-graders at Fairview Elementary in Bloomington are taking violin lessons three times a week throughout the school year.
The Jacobs School received donations of 65 violins -- worth approximately $15,210 -- for the program, which is entirely funded by anonymous donors. All three first-grade classes will meet twice weekly for group instruction. Once more each week, during recess, groups of three to four first-graders will meet for small-group instruction with students from Brenner's string pedagogy program at IU. Group classes will be instructed by Brenner and Kasia Bugaj, assistant instructor for the program.
IU Jacobs School of Music Dean Gwyn Richards was an early champion of the Fairview violin program, having visited a thriving music school for children in a low-income part of Brazil. Richards recalls talking to a young clarinetist at the school in São Paulo.
"I asked him what he thought the first time he held a clarinet in his hands, expecting him to say 'I didn't know what to do with the reed,' or 'I didn't know where my hands were going to go,'" said Richards. "What he said was a revelation, and I haven't stopped thinking of it since. He said 'They didn't expect me to steal it.' All the way home I was thinking about that boy and what adolescents need. Now this boy has a defining element in his life: he can say he's a musician."
Brenner said she herself benefitted from a school violin class as a child. "I started violin in second grade in a program that was during the curricular day where they provided the instrument," she said. "If it had been the kind of program where my parents had to take me somewhere or pay extra, I would have never played the violin."
Fairview Elementary serves low-income Bloomington neighborhoods; approximately 90 percent of its students qualify by family income for free or reduced-price school lunches. IU's pre-college string academy is mainly populated by kids from Bloomington's University, Rogers-Binford and Childs schools, said Brenner, adding that instruction in musical instruments is not offered at public schools in Indiana until fifth or sixth grade.
This program is unique, Brenner said, because every first grader is studying the same instrument, making research on the program's effectiveness that much more powerful. "This is not just an extracurricular activity, it's another way for students to learn that is connected to math and reading," said Brenner. In fact, Brenner built the curriculum for the class by looking at the math and language arts standards for Indiana in first grade and figuring out how the violin class can meet those standards.
Richards said that while there is evidence that there are certain developmental benefits to early music education, there has yet to be a definitive study on the topic. "We're hoping this will make a contribution in original research," he said.
In order to document the positive effects of the classes, Lissa May (chair of the music education program at the Jacobs School) and other researchers will look at whether:
- Kids are more likely to attend school when they have violin class
- Parental involvement in school and attitude toward school improves
- WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) cognitive test scores taken at the beginning and end of the year (compared with a control group from Bloomington's Highland Park Elementary School) improve
- Participation in the program has an effect on cognitive development.
"None of us should teach in a vacuum. I'm not just teaching where to put your fingers and how to sound good on the instrument; I'm teaching a whole variety of different skills that are necessary," Brenner said. "And if there turns out to be no measurable academic effect, that's OK with me too, because we're going to have a great time, and we're going to love to play the violin together."
The Jacobs School hopes to continue violin classes for all interested Fairview students throughout their education at the school.
Richards also hopes the program will eventually serve as a model for the rest of the state.
"There are some great collegiate programs, K through 12 programs, and wonderful music teachers throughout our state," Richards said.
"There are great professional organizations like the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition in South Bend . . . If all of those entities banded together, we could move the study of instruments to a much earlier age in Indiana. I'm hoping that years from now, people from other states will look at us and say, 'Something must be happening in Indiana.'"