Heart strings

Despite a pandemic and new ways of learning, the Island youth strings program grows and grows.


COVID has had many effects on our lives and our activities, with music programs becoming especially challenged. How to keep students interested and challenged when school schedules are drastically changed, with teachers having to develop totally new approaches and outlooks, was problematic.

When the pandemic struck, Rebecca Laird was teaching strings to kids in the elementary grades. Right away, several families didn’t feel they could deal with remote classes and turned their instruments in.

As her students were working from home as opposed to classrooms, it was arranged for them to have half-hour Zoom lessons each week, plus 10 minutes a day working at home. Each Monday they had note-reading study time.

Lots of the students did really well, as they were essentially having private lessons. Classroom teaching doesn’t allow for individual attention, so learning to read music was easier, and many are reading quite well now.

Tisbury School did one week in class and one week at home, so their programs were worked out differently, both in-person and remote.

The string students eventually presented a program in the Tabernacle, likely the first in-person kids’ concert after the pandemic hit.

The High School Orchestra has continued to develop, with 10 musicians, and hopes the number will keep growing. Twenty students are in the Middle School Orchestra, with 150 to 160 in the entire string program. Many are beginners, and there is now a waiting list, with the program currently having only three teachers. Laird began in 2017, part-time, and by her third year, she was named director of the high school orchestra. Instructors Chelsea Pennebaker and Amy Wood teach the elementary students part-time. With so many new students looking to participate, it is hoped that the teaching staff may soon be expanded.

Many of the current players in the orchestras are beginners, with the orchestras using younger players to fill vacancies, mixing ages and conductors. Collaboration between other orchestras is growing; 18 students now go off-Island once a month to participate in the Cape Cod Symphony Youth Orchestra. Both high school students and advanced younger players participate. Several concerts are planned; in May, kids will be participating with the symphony strings.

The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society, which has promoted and supported the string program since its inception, had the visiting Rasa Quartet conduct Zoom master classes. Laird often brought other individual musicians and groups to the Island before the pandemic. When musician friends and colleagues come to play weddings and other performances, Laird often helps to book them for several other Island events, including working with the young string players, who work hard to take advantage of the opportunity.

Being split between high school and middle school orchestras, Laird gets to work with kids of many ages, promoting their continual progress. She says collaboration between groups and teachers is truly rewarding.

Her favorite idea for dealing with (and taking advantage of) COVID has been the setting up of mentorships between newer students and more advanced students. High school students become practice buddies with the younger ones, Zooming from home for 20-minute sessions. It has worked well, benefiting both.

Looking backward and forward to better times, Laird recalled doing extra projects such as Star Wars Day, settling kids into fun performances early on.

A COVID version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” made use of her husband Paxson’s audiovisual expertise, with each student recording his or her part, and the segments then combined into a huge virtual performance.

Transitions from COVID, looking forward while not necessarily returning to former routines, will help students to continue to grow as life advances to whatever normal might be. The main goal will be developing early programs that provide continuity as young musicians go from elementary into high school. Laird said she feels kids should be able to follow through seamlessly from early learning, growing into advanced skills in higher grades. “The high school drama program puts on amazing and ambitious musicals on stage. It would be great to have more and more skilled students in the pit,” Laird stated.

Music is essential to children’s growth and development, she believes. Participation in classes and performing for audiences benefit academics as well as socioemotional growth, and are experiences they will carry for the rest of their lives.

The Middle School Orchestra performs Dec. 16 at 7 pm; the High School Orchestra performs on Dec. 21 at 7:30 pm, both at the Performing Arts Center.