‘Long Overdue’ Strings Program Comes to Rockford, at Last

As her two dozen students prepare to launch into the rousing instrumental “Can-Can,” teacher Erin DeYoung gives them a get-ready-to-rock heads up.

“Starting next week we’ll do the ‘Can-Can challenge,’” DeYoung tells the North Rockford Middle School strings class. “We’ll do it faster and faster and see who’s still standing.”

It’s hard to be too intimidated by her challenge, though. As teacher of Rockford’s new strings program, DeYoung rouses her beginners to action with equal doses of exacting expertise and buoyant enthusiasm.

“How many beats does a half note get?” she calls out in a playful exercise. “A half note gets two beats!” they shout, clapping and stamping their feet in time. “How many beats does a whole note get?” “A whole note gets four beats!” Clap and stamp. “Good, very good!” DeYoung exclaims.

DeYoung helps Aysha Davey tune her violin

Such are the drills needed to familiarize new players with their violins, violas, cellos and basses. Since school began, DeYoung has been laying the foundations of what will eventually become a middle and high school orchestra program. It begins with this year’s sixth-graders and will add an additional grade each year.

To have this opportunity in a district of Rockford’s size is truly a gift, she said.  

“It’s exciting,” says DeYoung, who came to Rockford from nearly 10 years at Calvin Christian High School. “Strings are a huge part of the scene of music education in West Michigan. When they ask you in college, ‘what would your dream job be?’ you just don’t even dare make that dream. It’s an adventure.”

Community Support Strong

Offering a strings program has long been a dream of many in Rockford. More than a dozen years ago, 2001 graduate Cameron Warne put on a benefit concert to help start an orchestra program. He went on to become a renowned concert violinist under the name Cameron Blake.

Longtime school board member Carol Hillman began pushing for the program years ago. As previous owner of the Kindermusik of Rockford program for young children, Hillman met many families who assumed a Class A school district would have an orchestra. “Much to their dismay, after investing in a home here, they discovered orchestra was not an option,” she says.

Lack of an orchestra was “a glaring omission” in an otherwise strong music program, admits Ryan Kelley, assistant superintendent for curriculum. “We were the only school of our size that did not have an orchestra program. It’s long overdue.”

Community surveys in 2007 and 2010 indicated strong support for an orchestra, and a 2008 bond issue earmarked $400,000 for instruments. Plans finally came to fruition this fall, when DeYoung was hired and 68 students signed up for four classes at North Middle and East Middle schools.  

With voters approving a $76.1 million bond last spring, a new band room will be added to the high school, freeing up the current band room for when the orchestra arrives.

Erin DeYoung leads her string students at North Rockford Middle School in an exerciseBesides providing another outlet for musical expression, the strings program will help connect students to school, Kelley said. Like other co-curricular activities, music also improves their academic performance, he adds: “We really feel when you’re involved in these activities, it goes hand-in-hand with what you’re doing in the classroom.”

By adding another art form to district offerings, says board treasurer Hillman, “wonderful collaborations can blossom. How exciting will it be when our own student string players can be considered for the pit of a musical or wind players auditioning to be part of either a concert band or an orchestra?”

‘I Made That Sound’  

DeYoung is excited by the possibilities as well. Besides teaching them the fundamentals of performance, she shows her students the bigger picture.  

“I want them to love listening to music,” says DeYoung, who plays in the Calvin College Community Orchestra. “It’s just such a rich part of life. It brings joy and delight. It opens the world to you. It can teach you about new cultures and time periods.”

First she had to teach them the basics. Students didn’t even touch their instruments the first week, instead learning note values and using pencils to practice holding their bows. From there it was building blocks: learning to tune, finding the notes on the fingerboard, mastering bowing technique, reading music.

It’s tedious work but prevents bad habits, DeYoung says. “It’s hard (for students) to be patient, because they’re so eager to just jump right in and play.”

Sixth-graders Ben Rose and Jack Glaske were eager from the start. Jack, inspired by the pop violinist Lindsey Stirling, likes being able to “play all sorts of notes.” Ben insists learning the violin is not that hard, adding, “I love that our teacher is so nice to us and helps me if I mess up.”Charlotte Best says the bass violin is “unusual and cool”

Students are learning to play everything from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”  The shark riff from “Jaws” is a big favorite. Charlotte Best, one of the class’ few seventh-graders, gets to show off her bass violin on that one. “The bass just seems like such an unusual and cool instrument,” Charlotte says.  

Madelyn Schmidt, also a seventh-grader, says learning how to hold her violin bow was tough but she’s getting the hang of it.

“It really is fun,” Madelyn says. “When I hear it, it’s like, ‘I made that sound.’ It makes me feel really proud.”

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North Rockford Middle School

East Rockford Middle School

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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