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Schoolhouse rock
Students at McEver Elementary are learning to make sweet music in a new after-school program
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Wendy Baker, right, a cellist with the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, shows Jade Stinchcomb the proper way to hold a violin bow during an after-school class at McEver Elementary School. - photo by Tom Reed

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Jessica Manriquez, 11, talks about learning to play the violin.

GAINESVILLE — McEver Elementary School students are putting down the pens and pencils after school and picking up the bow and violin.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade at the West Hall school are learning how to play the violin under the tutelage of Wendy Baker, a cellist with the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra.

"It’s all about a dream," said principal Catherine Rosa. "... We (wished) our kids had an opportunity to be exposed to strings and a strings program. ... We know that music and the arts help promote academic success."

Rosa was inspired to pursue the program at McEver after a visit to her sister-in-law’s home in central Florida. Her sister-in-law is a violin teacher at a magnet school there.

"I had come back from a vacation visiting with them, listening to my second- and fifth-grade niece and nephew playing extraordinary violin," Rosa said. "They started (in) preschool and before school in the morning."

She talked to Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield about starting a program here.

"The next thing you know we had the money approved by the (Hall County Board of Education)," Rosa said.

The school sent out a flyer to parents looking for interested students.

Parents had to provide transportation in the free program, which ended up drawing 60 students. The instruments are used, cost about $100 apiece and come in varying sizes.

"In the very beginning, the kids came twice a week until they got some of the basics — we’re still working on basics, though," Rosa said.

Students meet for an hour once a week after school.

"The kids have had consistent instruction, but it takes a lot longer to get them going (to play the instrument)," Rosa said. "I think they’re (eager), especially the older kids."

Students didn’t get to jump right in with the instrument.

The initial challenge was getting them to learn how to hold the violin and otherwise position their body.

"We started with cardboard (cutouts)," Baker said. "... There has to be a practice kind of environment, especially with a big group (and) ... young kids."

The students needed to first learn how to "hold (the violin) carefully, treat it nicely, pick it up and place it down."

"It’s really easy to open up a case and have the violin tumbling out," Baker said. "The bridge can pop away. There are so many possible problems."

For the time being, the instruments are stored at the school.

"We want to get to the point where parents sign an agreement to take care of (the violins) and then we can let them go home," said Laura Gale, McEver’s music teacher.

Students said they are enjoying their new hobby.

"It’s fun. I like a music a lot," said fifth-grader Austin Passmore, 10. "I used to play the piano."

But he conceded that "it’s hard using the bow to make the music and trying to put my fingers on the frets."

Fifth-grader Jessica Manriquez, 11, said learning the instrument gets a bit frustrating.

"There are some songs that you know how to sing, but you don’t know how to play," she said.

Some of the students will perform "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" at McEver’s "Lullaby Concert," set for 7 p.m. Jan. 29, Gale said.

Rosa said the school bought the violins rather than rent them because "we want to sustain the program."

"We will be looking for grants and other sources of funding for next year’s program," she said. "We also would like to see this grow into the middle school, so these kids have a place to perform."

Baker said she would like to see McEver’s program "be the catalyst for a string program in the county."

"People need to hear about it and see that it’s working here," she added. "Then, maybe we can take it to the next step."

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