Joy, with strings attached

Tisbury Strings
At the Tisbury School, these string musicians meet at 7:30 am, before school begins. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Mary-Jean Miner - May 24, 2007

The smile was unmistakable. It said, "I did it." The young girl looked at her teacher, and then on cue, took a slow bow along with the others on stage. She had just made her debut as a musician, and she is only seven years old.

For those parents, new to the music education scene on the Island, January 25 was a big night indeed. They flashed back to the moment a few short months before when their child came home from school, breathless with excitement, and announced she wanted, more than anything, to play the violin. The confused parent probably thought, "Does my child even know what a violin is?"

Thanks to Nancy Jephcote, Island children as young as first-graders know more about stringed instruments than most adults. Ms. Jephcote is one of four string teachers in the district who teach some 200 student musicians, grades one through 12. Under supervisor Janis Wightman are high school string teacher Michael Tinus, and Chelsea Pennebaker, a half-time teacher working with Ms. Jephcote in the elementary schools.

Molly Healy
Molly Healy has found the joy of music.

Music can change a life

Second-grader Nancy Hawksbee announced to Ms. Jephcote that she wanted to become a string teacher. Quite a compliment for any teacher to hear. Ms. Hawskbee is now a string teacher on the Vineyard and a colleague of Ms. Jephcote, the woman who inspired her to play the violin. (Ms. Hawksbee is currently on maternity leave.)

The elementary string program is a regional program with 1.5 teachers in five schools, and one teacher in the high school. "Our numbers have stayed high in spite of school population going down," said Ms. Jephcote.

That the numbers remain high isn't surprising to anyone who has the opportunity to meet Ms. Jephcote and hear how passionate she is about the program.

"The joy factor" is how Ms. Jephcote describes what music gives to children.

The string program began as an after-school program in 1986. As interest grew, string music was moved back into the school day. However, for some musicians, that day starts pretty early. The orchestra, for example, meets before school starts. The combined groups from all the schools only meet the week before the concert.

Not just an extra

Music can no longer be viewed as just one extra thing in a child's day. Tests have shown that students who play an instrument do better in academic subjects such as math and science. The performance aspect of music builds self-esteem and group skills, both important elements in scholastic success.

Nancy Jephcote
Teacher Nancy Jephcote is passionate about the string program in the schools.\

"It's a wonderful program," Ms. Hawksbee said. "The kids on Martha's Vineyard are very fortunate to have it." Before going on maternity leave, Ms. Hawksbee remembers teaching eight students, more than one half of one class at the Oak Bluffs School. She credits the classroom teachers, and said they see the benefits of music education.

Ms. Hawksbee also noted that students who begin a string instrument at an early age and then drop it, are easily able to pick it up again later on. She has seen this with some of her own students.

"Parental support is very, very strong," she said. Ms. Jephcote agrees, saying, "Parental involvement has always been good here on the Island."

Ms. Jephcote introduces the instruments through demonstrations in the classrooms. She said there are instruments for all the students who wish to play and scholarships available for those who need them. "We introduce them to the instruments and, hopefully, they fall in love," she said. What child could resist Ms. Jephcote and her joy factor?

The spring string concert for grades K through eight will be Wednesday, May 30, 6:30 pm, Performing Arts Center, high school, Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, Oak Bluffs.