TRAVERSE CITY — Olivia Vollmer wasn’t thrilled at the idea of playing a stringed instrument until she saw a demonstration at her school.
Now the Charlevoix Elementary fourth-grader is renting a violin and taking free after-school string classes through a region-wide grant-funded program.
“Yesterday was her first class. She was beyond excited,” said Jen Vollmer, Olivia’s mother, Oct. 9. “Our first night of practice wasn’t too tortuous. She had to play for me and for her dad, and she had to put my mom, her grandmother, on speakerphone so she could play her first song. So I would say she’s hooked.”
The Gerber Strings Program is beginning its 14th year of providing strings education to northern Michigan students thanks to funding from the Dorothy Gerber Family — creators of Gerber baby food and founders of the Gerber Products Company. The program, for grades three-12, is administered by the Petoskey Crooked Tree Arts Center.
The program offers beginning and intermediate classes weekly in a dozen or so communities as far away as Beaver Island. It also offers performance experience through the Crooked Tree Youth Orchestra program.
Three orchestras in the program play in two or more concerts a year, including an annual spring concert at the Boyne Performing Arts Center.
Crooked Tree Arts Center Executive Director Liz Ahrens said the program is all about taking down barriers to arts education.
“The only cost to families is for renting instruments and we have scholarships,” Ahrens said, adding that most of this year’s budget of $203,000 will go to teaching, music supplies and mileage. “At least 75 percent of the kids receive some kind of financial support. So if a violin is $16 a month to rent, a kid could pay as little as $3 a month.”
The beauty of the program isn’t lost on parents, said Jennifer McAndrew, Crooked Tree Arts Center music education assistant director and one of two full-time teachers for Gerber Strings. Last year the program drew nearly 450 students from Charlevoix, Emmet and Antrim Counties, many of whom had never seen a violin, viola, cello or bass.
“Most of these schools we teach in are smaller community schools. Their programs haven’t had music ed. Their excitement is unbelievable when we come in with strings,” said McAndrew, who spends about four hours a day in her car. “We’re also getting a lot of home school families. They’re using us for their music class credit.”
Ahrens said the strings program also is popular with high school band students anxious for other performing experiences.
“This gives them the opportunity to play in the youth symphony, which adds percussion, brass and winds to strings to make a full orchestra,” she said.
This year the program is expanding to Cheboygan Area Schools and their counterparts, including Harbor Light Christian School. It’s an accomplishment that was a long time in coming, said Sandy Jeannotte.
“To our community it’s definitely an addition,” said Jeannotte, principal of Cheboygan’s East Elementary School and a member of the Cheboygan Area Arts Council. “Back in the early ‘90s we were trying to get orchestra into the high school. We couldn’t do it. We didn’t have the financial resources.
“It’s something that has been lacking, and we’re hoping it’s successful.”