2017-05-18 / Arts & Entertainment News


How I went back to kindergarten to learn to play the cello

Nancy Stetson is learning how to play the cello with elementary school children in the MusicWorks! program. Nancy Stetson is learning how to play the cello with elementary school children in the MusicWorks! program. IT’S NOT UNCOMMON FOR PEOPLE TO GO BACK to school later in life. Maybe they audit classes or take online courses.


I went back to kindergarten. It all began when my editor gave me an assignment early last year. I confess that I wasn’t too wild about it initially.

The Gulf Coast Symphony has a program that teaches kids in kindergarten through second grade how to play classical music, I was told.

Great, I remember thinking. My knowledge of classical music is limited, and it’s notoriously difficult to get good quotes from young children.

This story was not off to a great start.

But the more I learned about the program called MusicWorks!, the more intrigued I grew.

As part of its education initiative, the Gulf Coast Symphony provides free music lessons from 4-5:30 p.m. every weekday for kids at the Heights Center in Fort Myers. In just seven days, they get more arts instruction than they’ll receive in an entire school year at their elementary school.

Andrew Kurtz, musical and executive director of the Gulf Coast Symphony, addresses the audience at a MusicWorks! recital. 
VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY Andrew Kurtz, musical and executive director of the Gulf Coast Symphony, addresses the audience at a MusicWorks! recital. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY The Heights Center is in the Harlem Heights neighborhood, where many families live in the worst poverty in the county — twice the rate than elsewhere in Lee County. (The average household income of a typical Harlem Heights family is less than $25,000 a year.)

But through MusicWorks!, 5- to 8-year-old children are learning how to play violin, viola, cello and bass.

I watched as a group of them plucked the strings of their instruments, shouting out the notes and stomping their feet for emphasis: D-A-D, stomp! D-A-D, stomp! D-D-A-A-D-A-D! stomp!

Melissa Barlow, MusicWorks! program director at Gulf Coast Symphony Melissa Barlow, MusicWorks! program director at Gulf Coast Symphony It looked like fun.

A 7-year-old boy with a plus-sized personality played a bass that was bigger and taller than he was.

I realized I was envious.

As I watched and took notes, then wrote the story (“Symphonic Delight,” March 10, 2016), an idea began forming: If these youngsters could learn to play a musical instrument and have fun doing so, would it work for me? I had always wanted to play the cello. Could I learn how if I went through their program?

I approached Andrew Kurtz, musical and executive director of the Gulf Coast Symphony, and he agreed to let me work alongside the MusicWorks! kids at the Heights Center for a year.

I rearranged my vacation in order to be back in Southwest Florida in mid- August for the first day of school.


MusicWorks! program director and Gulf Coast Symphony community engagement director Melissa Barlow, whom we all call Miss Melissa, quickly assessed my knowledge of playing a musical instrument (none) and immediately started me out in kindergarten.

Nancy Stetson during a mini-recital Nancy Stetson during a mini-recital There I was, decades out of school, back at square one.

Surely I was the only kindergartener with a master’s degree.

I sat in a tiny chair at a tiny table, or sometimes cross-legged on the floor (“Criss-cross applesauce!”), surrounded by 5- and 6-year-olds.

I felt like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

Because I was an adult, the kids called me Miss Nancy.

But I was a student in every sense of the word. I lined up with the kids. I followed the teachers’ instructions. I participated. I answered questions.

Some days, I even earned a coveted “Good job!” smiley-face sticker.

Florida Weekly’s Nancy Stetson, second from right, singing with MusicWorks! kids at the December recital. 
VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY Florida Weekly’s Nancy Stetson, second from right, singing with MusicWorks! kids at the December recital. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY The kids, for the most part, accepted me.

Some would ask me for permission to leave the classroom and get a drink of water. “You’ll have to ask a teacher,” I’d tell them. “Yes, I’m an adult, but I’m a student just like you.”

A couple of them viewed me with suspicion or confusion, while some just ignored me.

We spent weeks creating violins out of cardboard and learning how to treat them respectfully before we would be trusted with a real instrument.

We learned songs that named the various parts of a violin, such as the tailpiece and bridge, and the names of the strings (E, A, D, G). Our favorite line was, “If I drop it, it might CRACK,” which the kids always sang at full volume, tickled by the idea of breaking a violin, or perhaps excited by their mastery over not breaking the instrument.

Front row: Yairy Vincente, Melinda Castro and Alondra Vidales. Back row: Ian Camacho, Irving Vidales, Melissa Barlow, Joleniciya Valentin and Nancy Stetson Front row: Yairy Vincente, Melinda Castro and Alondra Vidales. Back row: Ian Camacho, Irving Vidales, Melissa Barlow, Joleniciya Valentin and Nancy Stetson We were given thin wooden dowels to use as our bows (I think they were actually paint stirrers). With them, we learned how to properly hold a violin bow. I later learned that holding a cello bow demands a totally different grip. I struggled with that.

We listened to Saint-Saens’s “Carnival of Animals” and pretended to be the different animals, lumbering around like elephants with long trunks or gliding about like swans.

On Friday afternoons, we’d sit with large blue plastic buckets from Lowe's turned upside down and pound on them, our own little kindergarten version of “Stomp.” We learned different rhythms, how to play in unison, how to play with in small groups while others played a completely different rhythm — a useful skill for anyone in an orchestra.

We clapped out rhythms with our hands, clapping out our names or favorite food or television character. We learned about quarter notes, half notes, whole notes.

Sometimes Mr. Greg would bring his accordion in and play it.

Sometimes Miss Lois would play music on a boom box and we’d all dance.

At the end of September, still just a “paper orchestra,” we had a mini-recital at the Heights Center. I sat on stage with the rest of the kids, singing and chanting our various songs about the parts of the violin and how to properly handle a bow.

Not wanting to be the only student without a parent or relative there, I ask a couple of friends if they’d like be my faux parents. They readily agreed, though we’re all the same age. My faux dad couldn’t make it at the last minute, but my faux mom brought a friend, who I dubbed my faux aunt.

A real instrument

I never thought it would happen, but by late fall I graduated from kindergarten. I was thrilled — and secretly terrified — to finally be getting a real instrument. A cello. Miss Melissa graciously allowed me to use hers until mine — an adult-sized student cello — arrived from the instrument company.

Wow. Even without classical training, I could instantly appreciate its rich, deep sound (though I couldn’t always produce the sounds I wanted to on it).

There were countless things to learn: how to hold the instrument, how to sit, how to hold the bow and how to put rosin on it so it won’t glide soundlessly over the strings. Even the strings were different: C, G, D and A on the cello, instead of E, A, D, G on the violin.

Every new thing I learned built on something previously learned.

“In music, there’s always something new you can master,” Miss Melissa told me.


MusicWorks! held little mini-recitals at the Heights Center every month. We started learning how to play “Jingle Bells” and “Dreidel” for the December concert.

I remember feeling disappointed when I realized that the cello part for “Jingle Bells” only worked if you were playing with the other instruments. I had imagined myself playing a rudimentary version of the song for my friends, but the cello part was written to harmonize and complement the other parts. I wasn’t sure anyone would recognize the tune if they just heard the cello part.

Nevertheless, I practiced it. Over and over and over.

Just before the recital, however, it was decided we weren’t ready to play “Jingle Bells” before an audience yet. Instead, we played “Dreidel” twice in a row. I let myself get distracted and got lost somewhere the second time around, not knowing where we were for entire measures of the song.

We also sang Christmas songs, all of us accompanying the lyrics with sign language. When we started “Feliz Navidad,” the audience perked up, some singing along and others dancing in their chairs. (The Harlem Heights community is 71 percent Latino.) Though I felt a little silly singing with the kids and making hand gestures, it was gratifying to see the audience get so excited.

We sang our holiday songs again at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in December. And in April, we returned there to perform as an orchestra, playing “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in front of more than 1,400 people.

As an arts and entertainment critic, I found it very strange to be onstage, to be in the spotlight.

We did well, though. Mr. Haniel, our conductor, seemed to take us through it at a faster tempo than we had rehearsed. It was over much quicker than I expected.

The program grows

Maestro Kurtz calls the MusicWorks! program “the crown jewel of the Gulf Coast Symphony’s education programs, in terms of making a genuine change in a community.”

Last year, the MusicWorks! Orchestra had 32 kids in kindergarten through second grade. This school year, it expanded to 42 kids, including kids up through fifth grade.

For the 2017-18 year, it will expand to grade six and serve 65 kids. They’ll add woodwinds, brass and percussion to what has been up until now a strings-only orchestra. In addition to buying more instruments, the program will add at least nine more teachers.

MusicWorks! received a grant from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation for $146,000 for its first three years. Additional financial support comes from the D’Addario Foundation, the Bireley Family Foundation and the Claiborne and Ned Foulds Foundation, as well as other individuals and grants.

The program follows the El Sistema model of music teaching, which nurtures and supports the child.

“We make it fun. We make it a positive thing,” Miss Melissa says. “We do games to build skills.”

For example, she’ll have her class do bow races.

“I’m looking to see how their arms are moving, are they holding the bow in a good position. I’m looking at all their techniques. They’ll compete to see who can get 24 counts on one bow stroke without running out of bow. They’re counting and working on division. They’re using critical thinking: I didn’t have enough bow left, so the next time I have to do that, do I go faster or slower? They realize they have to bow slower, so then they try again.

“Not only do we teach them music here, we’re hoping to instill basic human traits and improved behavioral skills and increase their academic achievement through the study of music.”

They’ve already seen how the program has positively affected the children in just one year’s time.

After the first year, 90 percent of the children increased their math and/or reading grades by one grade level or more, Miss Melissa says.

Samantha “Miss Sam” Cicchini, the kindergarten teacher at the Harlem Heights Community Charter School, notes that the MusicWorks! program requires a lot of dedication and concentration from the students.

“I do believe the focus that they teach the children has affected their behavior; they can focus for longer periods in class since the beginning of the year,” she says. “They put a lot of effort and determination into their work, and seem more knowledgeable of recognizing beats and melodies … Overall, the music program has positively affected their attitudes toward school and activities in general.”

The daily music program also provides consistency for the children, many of whom might not have it in their home lives.

“No matter what, the kids can always rely on us being here,” says Miss Melissa. “Some of the situations they come from, you couldn’t even imagine what goes on at home. Sometimes their situations change on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.”

But music can be their door out, she says, noting that when she was in elementary school in Pennsylvania, “I had very good teachers who were my mentors and helped me beyond playing bass. I’d go to them for anything, I could tell them anything. It was a safe space for me.”

Though she’d love it if all the kids became professional musicians, she’s satisfied that “We’ve given them a lifelong skill. They could just play for their own enjoyment and keep that safe escape (into music.)”

But music, and the arts in general, she emphasizes, are not fluff.

“Some people think it’s just an extra, an ‘elitist activity,’ but now they’re noticing, and studies are helping to support this, that the arts and playing music can help you with so much more, can increase academic achievement and develop social behaviors.”

Learning and playing music is a visual, aural and kinesthetic activity all at once.

It helps children with math, problem solving, self-discipline, working with others and creative thinking. They’re more likely to stay in school and graduate from high school.

“I’ve seen a lot of behavior changes in the kids,” Miss Melissa says. “It’s amazing. They’ve grown into leaders. Some of the toughest students we had last year just developed leadership skills. We encourage them to transfer that and help teach their peers during lessons and during orchestra rehearsals.”

I’ve been on the receiving end of that, asking two 11-year-olds who also play cello for help. It’s a win-win situation: I understand the music better and have my questions answered, while they feel proud in helping an adult and sharing their knowledge.

Second generation

MusicWorks! is also launching a second-generation program, where any parent or guardian of a student is invited to come and take lessons alongside a child.

“After one of the first recitals at the beginning of the year, I had a couple parents and one grandparent say, ‘This is such a great opportunity for these kids, I wish I had the chance to do this when I was their age. I still want to play an instrument,’” Miss Melissa says.

“That program will allow any parent or guardian who wants to learn (to do so) — kind of like you did,” Maestro Kurtz tells me. “It’s part of the philosophy of the El Sistema model and also part of what we believe. It deepens the bonds of community and family when they’re participating in learning to play an instrument with their child. It’s strengthening and enriching for the community, and that’s why we’re doing it.”

He estimates 15 to 20 adults might participate.

The next step for MusicWorks! is to expand to multiple sites, possibly in 2018, “assuming we get the funding,” the maestro says.

“By then, we’ll have three years of solid data and the experience of running a complete program for three years, with a lot of lessons learned along the way. We’ll have the blueprint for how to work in other communities.”

Meanwhile, the 2016-2017 school year is winding down. For MusicWorks! it concludes with a recital at 5 p.m. Friday, May 19, at the Heights Center. Alongside members of the Gulf Coast Symphony, we’ll play “The Great Gate of Kiev” from “Pictures at an Exhibition” as well as “The William Tell Overture” and possibly some folk tunes such as “Boil Em Cabbages” and “Cripple Creek.”

“It’s about changing perspective,” says Maestro Kurtz. “It opens possibilities and the imagination of these children for what might be. It opens their minds to new horizons they would not have thought about before being in this program.” ¦

MusicWorks! recital

>> What: The MusicWorks! Orchestra with members of the Gulf Coast Symphony

>> When: 5 p.m. Friday, May 19

>> Where: The Heights Center, 15570 Hagie Drive, Fort Myers

>> Cost: Free and open to the public

>> Info: 277-1700 or www.gulfcoastsymphony.org

>> More: MusicWorks! accepts donations of used instruments and books.

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