Martha’s Vineyard strings students excel in concert

Teagan Myers.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Teagan Myers.

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center was bubbling with excited anticipation Monday evening as students and families arrived for the All-Island Elementary Spring String Concert. Children ran in swinging violin cases or lugging cellos nearly their own size. Parents carried cameras and i-Pads to record the event and jockeyed for a seat with the best view. While the Advanced Elementary Orchestra assembled on stage, quietly waiting for the concert to begin, the youngest students clamored into front row audience seats, instructed to be good listeners.

“Other subjects have tests, we have concerts,” said Nancy Jephcote who has been the elementary string program teacher for 12 years and was involved from the start. “It’s like training for the Olympics: it’s hard work!”

The string program began as an after-school offering in 1986 with encouragement and support from the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society. It was so successful that it became part of the regular school day in 1988. There are 152 elementary pupils from grades two through eight enrolled. Last year a moratorium was placed on new sign-ups since teaching staff couldn’t meet the heavy demand. Half-time instructor Chelsea Pennebaker and Katrina Nevin, teaching substitute, were at the concert, encouraging, demonstrating, and maintaining decorum.

Ms. Jephcote praised Vineyard school superintendent James Weiss and the community for supporting this program. She said having string programs in elementary schools is uncommon elsewhere, especially since many arts programs have been eliminated.

A familiar sight fiddling and singing at folk performances, Ms. Jephcote assumed a composed, strict yet nurturing persona as a teacher. Although she occasionally gently joked with her students, no nonsense was allowed.

The Advanced Elementary Orchestra opened with a lyrical Canadian ballad, then Vivaldi’s regal and rousing “Gloria,” followed by a spirited Marcello. Featured soloists were Caroline Roddy, Ben Nadelstein, Elinor Hanjian, Camilla Prata, Caroline Herman, Daniel Gaines, Chris Mayhew, and Liam Weiland.

The group was joined by high school instrumentalists for the inspiring Royal Fireworks Music by Handel, Rimsky-Korsakoff’s exotic “Scheherazade,” and a Ukrainian folk melody. Intermediate Orchestra players showed considerable skills on “The Tenth Planet,” a piece with many mood changes by Michael Story.

Directed by Michael Tinus, the high school orchestra expertly performed two playful pieces written by Benjamin Britten as a schoolboy.

Ms. Jephcote’s own “Rock On,” played by the Beginning Ensembles with Intermediate Orchestra, was upbeat and spirited. Ms. Jephcote mixed familiar phrases from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Hot Cross Buns” used in Suzuki training with the popular “We Will Rock You” to encourage the youngsters to play it.

The second part focused on the Suzuki method beginning with advanced students in crisp Baroque pieces by Lully, Handel, and J.S. Bach.

At last the patient beginners were highlighted in a Suzuki demonstration conducted by Ms. Pennebaker, illustrating the close discipline that lessons require. Ms. Jephcote said Suzuki method is an ear-learning approach that encourages parental involvement in practice, and that the String Program combines Suzuki with other elements to create a fun learning environment.

Performing in small then larger groups, the beginners played a variety of short classical and traditional pieces from memory, all requiring careful technique. There were even some playful but always instructive moments as Ms. Jephcote challenged the youngsters to copy her quick bow movements. The whole group impeccably played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as the fitting finale.

Throughout the concert as pupils of different levels performed, the striking growth and improvement that takes place from year to year was evident.

Despite the length of the concert, all the young students stayed on their best concert behavior, with only an occasional wave to Dad, smile to Grandma, or fidget.

Jo-Ann Taylor’s daughter, Sarah, 11, has played violin for four years. Along with regular lessons at the Charter School, she attends orchestra rehearsals at the Tisbury School two mornings per week at 7:20 am, a demanding schedule for both student and parent. Despite the hard work and time commitment, Ms. Taylor said her daughter thoroughly enjoys her violin studies and socializing with other young musicians at rehearsals. And she is always happy to practice.

Little Katalena Hume, age seven, sat patiently in black pinafore and white blouse awaiting her turn. When performing she held her little violin and bow carefully, calm and focused.

According to her mother, Kara Hume, she began private lessons at age three, now studies with Ms. Pennebaker at the Chilmark School, and loves the violin. Ms. Hume said she wanted her child to begin lessons young because, like language, music is best learned at an early age. Like some other parents, she stressed the importance of music and other arts programs in the schools, and she is grateful they exist here.

After the concert the happy children piled out into the audience where welcoming parents greeted them with hugs and praise. One Mom presented a bunch of lilacs to her delighted violin-toting daughter.

“Good job, awesome job!” called out one Dad to his beaming young son, tousling his hair. “We’re really proud of you!”

Music education uses many parts of the brain and is an invaluable tool to help children focus and develop self-esteem, Ms. Jephcote contends passionately. She believes this skill and confidence carry over to other subjects.

Seeing the intense concentration with which the children played, how closely they watched, how quickly they responded, and their whole-hearted commitment to doing their best, then witnessing their bright, triumphant smiles as they took their bows leaves no doubt that Ms. Jephcote is right.