November 4, 2010 in Washington Voices

Volunteers guide grade school students

By The Spokesman-Review

Catherine Shipley, a violinist with the Spokane Symphony, works with Linwood Elementary School student Melanie Harris during music class on Oct. 26. Shipley is a member of the Spokane Youth Music Consortium.
(Full-size photo)

An excited buzz whispered through Patricia Bassett’s classroom at Linwood Elementary on a recent morning. It was a big day for the fifth grade beginning strings class. For the first time, the students were going to use bows to play their violins, violas, cellos and basses.

As Bassett showed the class how to hold the bow, two volunteers helped students position their instruments. The volunteers know a bit about stringed instruments. Catherine Shipley is a violinist with the Spokane Symphony and Sister Karen Conlin is a renowned cellist and instructor at Holy Names Music Center. These professional musicians help in Bassett’s class each week, thanks to an innovative program: The Spokane Youth Music Consortium.

Craig Landron, executive director of Holy Names, created the Consortium last year. “We thought it would be a good idea to get the youth music groups in the Spokane area together,” he said.

Representatives from Spokane Symphony, Music Northwest and Spokane Area Children’s Chorus, among others, met at Holy Names with one goal in mind: working together to promote music/arts education in local schools. “From there it really blossomed,” Landron said.

They found an enthusiastic supporter in Spokane Public Schools. “The minute I heard what was happening, I wanted to be involved,” said Dave Weatherred, visual/performing arts coordinator for Spokane Public Schools. “It’s a cool thing happening in the community.”

Recent changes in district policy have resulted in an increase in music classroom size and participation in elementary schools. “Most kids have never seen those instruments before,” Weatherred said. The SYMC launched the music support team to get volunteers into the classroom.

Teachers like Bassett greatly appreciate the help. “It’s an opportunity to have symphony members work with grade school students,” she said. With more than 25 students in her beginning strings class, simply helping students tune their instruments could take up most of the class time.

Instead, Conlin and Shipley quietly moved through the room, tuning instruments and helping kids maneuver the unwieldy bows.

“I know it’s hard but you can do it!” Bassett said. “It’s like patting your tummy and rubbing your head at the same time.”

At last the class was ready to play a short scale. The mellow sound floated through the room with nary a squeak or screech. “Oh! That sounded good!” said a little girl, her eyes wide with surprise.

Bassett beamed. “Pat yourself on the back!”

Shipley offered warm words of encouragement and gentle guidance to students struggling to find their place in the music. For her, working with the students provides an avenue to share her love of music with a wider group, instead of just the individuals she teaches privately.

The SYMC meets monthly at Holy Names Music Center and is open to people from all art disciplines, not just music. Landron said the SYMC hopes to expand its volunteer base, which is welcome news to area schools.

“The bottom line is we want our students to be creative and nothing fosters creativity like the arts,” Weatherred said. “Music should be a part of every student’s well-rounded education.”

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