Students in the All-Island Elementary Strings Concert filled the stage at the Performing Arts Center last week; they’re part of a long-time program the community can be proud of. More than 200 students, from second to eighth grade in every Island school (and some homeschoolers) comprise the group of young musicians playing at varying levels.
Nancy Jephcote was one of the teachers who brought the program back to life in the late 1980s, and she’s still at it today. She carries some of the history of the strings program around along with her sheet music.
“In 1986, the Martha’s Vineyard Public School system began an afterschool strings program in conjunction with the Chilmark Chamber Music Society (now the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society),” Jephcote told The Times. The school district hired Stephanie Kupchynsky as a full-time music teacher in 1988, and nearly 250 students signed up for classes, something Ms. Jephcote called “an unimaginable student load.” (Sadly, Kupchynsky was murdered in 1991 in Rochester, N.Y., after leaving the Island.)
Because the Island’s string program was designed to be based on the Suzuki method, Kupchynsky and then-private teacher Jephcote traveled every other week to the New England Conservatory for long-term teacher training.
Jephcote said she’s grateful for the support the school system has given the strings program over the years. Now two part-time teachers share duties with Jephcote — Chelsea Pennebaker and the newest teacher, Rebecca Laird.
Brother and sister Linus (12) and Lacey (8) Munn play viola and violin in the strings program, and their mom, Natalie Munn, is thrilled with their progress, especially considering she has no music training herself, other than playing a little clarinet in junior high school.
“They play every night,” Munn said. “It takes a couple of years before it sounds like it’s intended, before the squeaks go away, the intonation gets better. Linus is in seventh grade, and he plays high-level stuff at this point. It’s amazing, it’s so beautiful.”
She said Linus began playing viola in second grade and is very “gung-ho” about it, playing summers as well as during the school year. Students gather on the Cape in the summer for a jamboree where students can play with a host of other students, getting a feel for where they stand and getting to know other kids who like music as much as they do. Linus will play in an upcoming all-state festival sponsored by the Massachusetts Music Educators Association. Lacey plays violin and so far, her mom said, she loves it.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Munn said. “I don’t know how the teachers do it, but they do a great job coordinating it.” She said the M.V. Chamber Music Society supports the program, providing instruments for students who can’t afford to rent or buy them.
“We rent our instruments, and we’ll probably do that until they’re older,” Munn said. “They do a great job for anybody who wants to play.”
But the strings program was alive and well long before today’s crop of students first picked up their bows. Shirley Wilcox was part of the program in the early 1960s.
She remembers when she was 8 or 9 years old, lugging her great-grandmother’s old violin in its wooden case back and forth to the Edgartown School.
“When I first started, it was my mother’s suggestion, as it is with most children,” Wilcox remembered. “I fell in love with it. We were in a rural area, and there weren’t many violins. I loved it so much that my mother traded sewing lessons for music lessons with the music teacher’s wife.”
Wilcox said her violin playing eventually took a backseat to marriage and raising her two daughters, but when they left home, she decided to pick it up again.
“The day came when I realized we had paid the mortgage off, paid for college for the two girls, and I finally had enough money and time to go back to it,” Wilcox said. “I don’t play to be a performer now, it’s for my own pleasure. With the string instruments, once you’ve learned it it comes right back to you.”
Now she sometimes plays with the strings group the Flying Elbows. “They let me sit in even if I make mistakes,” she laughed. “There’s something about the sound of the instrument under your ear that makes me weak in the knees.” Her great-grandmother’s violin? It’s still in her cellar.