- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2016

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - Hushed whispers spoken in Spanish faded as a woman with a violin perched on her shoulder took her place in front of the students. In the makeshift classroom of Austin High School’s auditorium lobby, she spoke slowly and repeated the directions.

The students more fluent in English smiled, nodded and translated the instructions to their classmates. As the first sounds of the 22 violins echoed off the tiled floor, the language barrier vanished.

“Music is a language of itself. It speaks to the soul. It doesn’t matter if you speak English, Spanish or some other language, you can communicate through music,” said Sharon Landis, executive director of the Decatur Youth Symphony.

As Landis and director Jacob Frank walked the students through “The Monkey Song” and “The Flower Song,” pieces that will prepare the beginning musicians to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Diego Perez stood silently and intently watched the instructors’ fingers.

He mimicked the positions: Rest position. E1. Open E. Open A. Open E.



“That’s actually sounding like music,” teacher Cheri Page said enthusiastically. “They are always so excited for Tuesday because it is violin day. Every Tuesday we have the same conversation. They ask if they have violin. I ask, ‘Is it Tuesday?’ They say ‘Yes.’ I say, ‘Then you have violin.’ It doesn’t matter how many times I assure them they will be able to play, they keep asking.”

Page glanced across the rows of students limited in their ability to communicate through words. Some grew up in Decatur, but in Spanish-speaking homes. Others recently moved to north Alabama from Mexico, Guatemala and Puerto Rico.

“I like learning violin,” said 19-year-old Jose Chavarria, an eight-month resident of Decatur. “It is fun. There is no worry.”

The language limitations Chavarria and his classmates face in other classes disappear when they pick up the violins.

Through music, they communicate without any insecurity. Music is music. A violin in America sounds the same as a violin in Central America, South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

“I want to learn more and more and make it my, um, how do you say, hobby. It is part of my heart,” said 18-year-old Georgina Saucedo, who arrived in Decatur from Mexico last year.

For many of the students, their introduction to the violin came at the beginning of February. Credit for bringing the program to Austin High lies with Perez, who speaks softly and succinctly, uncertain of his English.

Yes, he said, he carried a violin around school. No, he said, he did not have any music classes. Yes, he said, he hoped someone would teach him.

How it started

Landis elaborated on how one boy who brought an unused violin to school resulted in a musical program for ESL students.

“When Diego came to school with a violin that he did not know how to play and an after-school job that would not let him participate in our regular classes, his teachers did not let the subject drop,” Landis said. “They arranged for him to be taught during the school day and gave other ESL students the opportunity to learn the violin.”

With teenagers eager to learn the violin, Landis and Frank set aside an hour each week for the Austin students, making their already busy schedules even busier.

“Music is magical. Every child should have the opportunity to experience music,” Landis said. “It benefits the mind and the soul.”

For Landis and other instructors with Decatur Youth Symphony, providing every child with music is not just a dream. It is a mission - one the nonprofit organization has been working toward since forming 15 years ago.

They established groups for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, created a drum ensemble at the Third Street Boys & Girls Club and developed Breakfast with the Classics.

Started four years ago as an extension of the symphony’s 3rd Grade Violin Program, Breakfast with the Classics offers specially selected at-risk students 30-minute lessons on the violin, viola or cello every weekday morning before school. The program, which began at Woodmeade Elementary, a Title I school where 85 percent of the students receive free or subsidized lunches, expanded to Austinville Elementary in August.

“You could say I begged for the Decatur Youth Symphony to bring the program to Austinville. I like to say I just repeatedly expressed interest about the program to Sharon,” said Jeffrey Gilbreath, music instructor at Austinville.

When the Kiwanis Club donated funds for the symphony to expand Breakfast with the Classics, Landis turned to Gilbreath. The program would come to Austinville if Gilbreath would participate in the lessons.

“I never thought I’d be 51 and learning another music instrument, but here I am and I am ecstatic,” Gilbreath said.

The instructor with a doctorate in music education selected 12 third-graders for the inaugural year.

“Teachers have commented on how students who had behavior problems last year are behaving better. The violin program has helped them focus and has made the students excited about coming to school,” Gilbreath said.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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