String Theory


A young girl picks up her violin, steps up to the microphone in the center of the small stage in her school’s cafeteria, and excitedly begins her speech. She says her name, the instrument she plays, and a little about herself, then displays her bow. Eight of her classmates follow suit.

“Up like a rocket, down like the rain,” the children sing, to the tune of of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, “back and forth like a choo-choo train.”

The short, adorable song delineates proper bow positioning and movement. One after one, they get their turn at the mic to introduce themselves and lead the class in a different exercise.

Normally, these fifth-graders wouldn’t have an opportunity to play a stringed instrument in school for at least another year. By that time, it may seem too late, uncool, a hassle. By any measure, Musical Lives, a collaboration between UT’s Butler School Music and UT Elementary, has been a success—especially considering that it caters to children as young as second-graders, most of whom would not otherwise have the chance to pick up a violin until middle school. In its first year, the program put instruments in the hands of 90-plus children.

“This gets us an in with them early, so that fine arts—and orchestra specifically—is in their plan for middle school,” says Laurie Scott, the brains behind the operation.

Scott, PhD ’87, had started pilot programs in AISD and in San Marcos, but it never felt right until she and fellow professor Bob Duke had the idea to bring it to UT Elementary. Scott is the director of the String Project, a long-running Butler School program under which Musical Lives resides. At UT Elementary, the program can reach an underserved East Austin population. And from the outset, reinforcement from parents, teachers, and administration has been paramount.daniel_cavazos-3902

“I don’t want to get too granola about it,” Scott says, “but [at UT Elementary] there’s a feeling of support and collaboration that no kid is going to fall through the cracks. The expectations are high.”

Scott and Duke recruited graduate students Aurora Adamson and Courtney Castaneda, both working toward master’s in music and human learning degrees and teaching certificates, to teach eight classes across grade levels at the charter school.

Lifelong musicians, Adamson and Castaneda say that this type of exposure to string instruments is atypical in children this young. Adamson, who grew up in Idaho, says she had to throw a temper tantrum to get her parents to let her play violin, and Castaneda, whose family moved from Houston to California during elementary school, was resigned to private lessons only.

“They are at a great age for learning things,” Adamson says. “Starting kids earlier gets them into the habit of performing, playing with friends. It makes their environments really musical from the time they are little.”

The social component of Musical Lives is a huge factor in the ongoing success of the program. Adamson and Castaneda, involved with the students every school day, see social progress across grade levels. That progress will prove to be important when they ship off to middle school.

“I don’t think there’s any activity that’s more effective in teaching the relationship between investing effort and the outcomes of that effort than music-making.”

“We’ve noticed it really fosters a great sense of community among the kids,” Adamson says.

“That’s what makes music and orchestra so amazing, because it gives you that kind of community you need in middle school,” Castaneda says. “It makes you learn those social skills.”

Adamson tells a story of a fourth-grade girl, who, knowing her classmate usually arrives late, sets up his violin for him before every class.

“She wants him to be able to participate right away,” she says. “They look out for each other,” Castaneda adds.


Duke agrees that the sense of community is not unlike that in team sports—to a degree.

“Yes … but at the end, nobody loses,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think there’s any activity that kids can engage in that’s more effective in teaching the relationship between investing effort and the outcomes of that effort than music-making.”

Adamson recalls another story, one of two fifth-grade boys, one who had been playing for years and the other a first-timer. She found out the more experienced child had been giving extra lessons to the newbie at the YMCA, where they go for after-school care. It’s just another example of the children not only bonding through music, but taking leadership roles with each other.

“Ultimately you want these kids to be their own teachers, and teachers for their peers,” Duke says.

The plan is for Musical Lives to extend beyond middle school, and into students’ adult lives.

“We want to make sure that if they stay in their performing group, when they leave high school, they will leave with an instrument in their hand, so that it’s not just a school experience, but a lifetime experience,” Scott says. “They will become advocates, and community performers, and … just keep playing.”

Photos by Daniel Cavazos.


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