Children ages 3 and 4 may not immediately come to mind when considering University of Arizona classes, but one program is taking on young children, teaching them how to play and master string instruments.
Called the String Project, the UA outreach program teaches children and teenagers the violin, viola, cello and double bass in an effort to boost performance and address the nationwide shortage of string instructors.
The driving philosophy of the project, which is run out of the UA School of Music and employs undergraduates and graduates, is that students should be proficient not merely in instrumentation.
The training is quite extensive.
Depending on the grade level, students in the program learn rhythm and beats, posture and how to properly hold their instruments and play a broad range of music. They also learn about the different families of instruments and expand their musical vocabulary.
The program, now in its 11th year at the UA and with more than 50 students enrolled, serves as a training ground and a teaching laboratory.
"There is no audition to make or break placement," said Jeannine Sturm, a UA graduate student who directs the program under an assistantship.
Also, the project also hosts an annual recital for the youth involved, with the next slated to be held Saturday, May 5 at 5 p.m. at the UA's Holsclaw Hall.
"Not many schools in the area offer their students the opportunity to learn a stringed instrument, so this is an opportunity to come for a private or group lesson," Sturm said.
"The lessons are pretty inexpensive compared to if they went to a private studio or individual instructor," she also said. "So, we also offer affordable lessons to the community."
Mara Castro chose to register her children – ages 7, 9 and 11 – in violin lessons at the UA.
"They have been in private lessons since my oldest was 3, but it is very expensive to keep them in the private lessons," she said.
Castro heard about the program through her husband, a UA alumnus, and said since joining, each of her children have advanced academically.
"Their teacher says it is because of the violin lessons," Castro said, adding that her fourth child would likely join at a later time. "It's very engaging for the little ones to learn the violin."
Sturm said it is not uncommon to have students commit to participating in the program for years. She also noted that the program works to ensure that students remain challenged throughout their studies.
"If they feel they are not being challenged, we move them," she said.
Don Hamann, a professor in the UA School of Music who founded the program, said the program is one of those that is "great for everyone," particularly the students enrolled and the UA student teachers.
Hamann, who previously founded comparable programs the University of Northern Colorado, and collaborated on a nationwide studies, said the program meets not only a local need, but a nationwide demand.
A pervasive need for instructors who can teach string instruments exists for both public and private schools, Hamann said.
"The impetus for educators like myself is to help train string teachers to give them a little bit of advanced training before they go into real life situations, where they will often not have much supervision," said Hamann, also the UA String Project's executive director.
"In essence, they learn from others and get advanced training in a more nurturing environment," Hamann said.
Katelyn Pechin, a UA junior studying music education with an instrumental focus, is one of the student teachers for the String Project.
Pechin said she especially appreciates that the UA program provides an opportunity to teach early in her academic career.
"I wanted to work with the String Project because it is very helpful in teaching you how to teach, when to teach and how students will respond," she said.
Pechin noted that one priority in the program is that youth develop their motor skills early on – not just that they play well. Consequently, the teachers are then able to aid the student more readily in both their learning and in their performance level.
"I think it is very important to teach proper posture early on because if you have developed (poor) habits, it can effect your playing in the future, or you could develop injuries," Pechin said.
"So we teach them how to sing and dance and move with the music, then how to read it," she added. "I felt I needed this, and it has helped me to over come fears I think I would have had during my first year of teaching."