UGA String Project creates unique musical experience for college, grade school students

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UGA String Project students display their completion certificates alongside their instructors, Hodgson School music education students, at the conclusion of their spring performance in Hodgson Concert Hall last April.

Every April, dozens of elementary and middle-school students take the stage of the University of Georgia Performing Arts Center’s 1,100-seat Hodgson Concert Hall. The music education majors who instructed them for a year or more introduce them, conduct them and play alongside them.

And at the end, when families crowd forward with cell phones pointed to the stage, the school children hold their certificates, the college students stand behind them, and the whole group smiles wide, all equally accomplished after a year of work.

For 16 years, the UGA String Project has given music education students a chance to begin putting their lessons into practice by offering lessons of their own: string education for elementary and middle school-aged children that is affordable and, increasingly, rare.

“The benefits of starting music lessons on an instrument in elementary school have been well documented, but since none of the area public schools has a string program at the elementary school level, the UGA String Project provides families with a low-cost opportunity for their children to begin learning violin, viola, cello, or bass,” said Ruth Monson, co-director of the project.

Music education students from the Hugh Hodgson School of Music work with their professors to discuss and design lessons for their elementary and middle school-aged students, who often don’t have access to string education programs or couldn’t afford private lessons. Classes begin each fall (preceded by an annual informational Open House/Instrument Petting Zoo at the Hodgson School—this year’s is set for August 28 at 6 p.m.) and continue through the spring, culminating in a public performance.

Created in 2001, the project is the product of a grant from the National String Project Consortium (NSPC), secured for the Hodgson School by David Starkweather, professor of cello and the project’s original director. 

Associate professor of violin Michael Heald succeeded Starkweather, and Skip Taylor, associate professor of music and current chair of the music education area, became the current head of the project in the 2008-2009 academic year.

One of Taylor’s first moves as director strengthened ties between the project and Athens-Clarke County (ACC) schools. The project was in need of a new practice space after busing ACC students to campus became inconvenient and other School of Music areas’ demand for space grew.

“I decided to make a connection with Barrow Elementary School, who I had already worked with to rent rooms for our marching band camps,” said Taylor. “Principal Ellen Sabatini was and has been absolutely wonderful—she offered up the space to us at no cost. The staff over there are all troopers, helping make sure we have what we need.”

Establishing that relationship between the UGA String Project and ACC schools became the first step in expanding the reach of the Hodgson School’s after-school music programs. 

Today, many string project students who are ACC residents get extra support through need-based tuition scholarships and the use of an instrument courtesy of ACC schools. AthFest Educates and Ronald Sachs Violins donated tens of thousands of dollars-worth of instruments to this end.

Additionally, the success of the string project has spurred the creation of the ACC School Band Project and the Boys & Girls Club String and Drum Project, opening up access to low-cost music education to more students in a variety of areas.

And the project’s notoriety continues to expand even today. Over the summer, Hodgson School students traveled to Albany, Ga., to take lead roles in the Georgia Music Foundation’s summer music camp at the Thornton Park Boys & Girls Club.

“What we've started with the pre-service teaching opportunities for Hodgson School students in the Athens Boys & Girls Club project and the UGA String Project has been seen as something good by people outside the Athens area and now they're contacting me asking, ‘How can we do this in our county?’” said Taylor.

But as all these projects expand and create offshoots, it takes more people to maintain everything, and that’s where Ruth Monson comes in. Since 2009, Monson has been co-director of the project, overseeing the operations on site at Barrow Elementary.

“Ruth has been a true asset to the project—and to my mental health—as we try to do all these things we're trying to do,” said Taylor.

No matter how big the project grows or how many new projects it creates, though, the core of the UGA String Project is providing valuable educational opportunities—for college and grade school students alike—and the people at the head of the project haven’t lost sight of that.

“My favorite thing about the project and teaching music in general is seeing kids get excited about learning how to play an instrument,” said Monson. “When a student finally catches on to a concept we’ve been trying to teach, you can see a light go on in his or her head. They begin to really enjoy playing and making music.”

For more information on the UGA String Project, visit ugacms.uga.edu/stringproject.html.