February 27, 2014 | Vol. 117 -- No. 45

Westwood Middle School's sizzling strings

Cheney School District's orchestra program starts first year at middle schools after introduction in 2012-13 at elementary schools

It starts with a sizzle.

John McCallum
Westwood viola player Hannah Goforth keeps her focus on instructor Liz Stringham during practice.

Ssst-sst-sssss, Ssst-sst-sssss, Ssst-sst-sssss, Ssst-sst-sssss.

It's a technique Westwood Middle School music instructor Liz Stringham uses to quiet her excited 18-student strings class and get them focused on the coming 40 minutes of practice. It establishes a beat, rhythm - initiating a call and response.

"There's no percussion in the ensemble so the beat can get lost," Stringham said. "I admit it's a little wishy-washy."

But it seems to work. The Westwood students emulate Stringham in perfect synchronization with violins, violas and cellos at the ready.

It's the first strings classes at Westwood and Cheney middle schools, and follows on the heels of strings being introduced at the beginning of 2012-2013 in all five elementary schools. It's a program Cheney School District K-12 arts coordinator and high school music teacher Harlan Henderson said they have wanted for some time, but didn't have a way of making it happen.

That changed in August 2012 when Henderson and district director of bands Bill Foster presented the idea to the Cheney School Board as part of the first music adoption program in the district in over 20 years. The orchestra will be implemented first at the elementary and middle school levels and then at high school.

Henderson said estimated costs for the entire district music program implementation - including band and choir - are $100,000 for phase one and $260,000 for phase two, of which strings is a small part. Foster in turn credits Betz Elementary School music teacher Shaun Kelly as the catalyst for starting the program at the elementary level, calling him "our strings expert."

"And now this year we get the fruits of that coming up at the middle schools," Foster said. Besides Westwood, Cheney Middle School has a class of 11 students, with about 60 students total in the elementary schools.

Some of that funding helped provide Stringham as an instructor. Last year, the Utah State University music education graduate worked at Sunset Elementary in Airway Heights, and followed those fifth-graders to Westwood. It's her fifth year teaching overall, including band and choir.

"I've used that degree in its fullest capacity," Stringham said.

At the Jan. 23 Westwood class, Stringham continues to get the students focused, this time quietly tapping out a beat on a bass drum in the band room as the students accompany her with their sizzle, following numbered note patterns on the projection screen. As the patterns change, the students graduate from sizzle to counting - "three, four, three four" - to clapping and finally counting again, this time the pitch of their voices rising and falling as they chant, "Down, up, down. Up, down, up. Down, up, down, up."

It's repetitive, possibly boring to the untrained ear. But it's essential, and watching the class, it's clear it's not only about learning music, but also having fun.

Stringham works with a combination of students from beginners to several who have been playing for years. It's an enthusiastic bunch.

"The kids I have in this group are highly motivated," Stringham said.

Henderson said most of the instruments are rented, with each school only able to provide a few to students whose families can't afford them otherwise. It's a situation that hopefully doesn't prevent a student from following a passion.

"We really want kids to not be locked out because of economics," Foster said.

At Westwood the class is now following the beats with their instruments, and will eventually transition into the time-honored cacophonous, yet fleetingly melodic drone of an orchestra tuning up. Stringham provides some last instructions.

"Good posture, use the entire bow," she said. "I don't want any of that choppy bow stuff."

And with that, the class practices songs they plan to perform at an upcoming concert. It's something students Maria Laiminger, Isabella Hemming, Madison O'Riley, Bethany Fisher and Hannah Goforth are excited about.

The girls have been playing for 1-2 years. Laiminger said her grandmother is really proud of her, and that she likes playing cello because it's different.

"I get more of the beat, and low parts on melodies," she said.

Goforth on viola said she enjoys it because she's learning new things. "I like the challenge," she added.

All five said they intend to play in the orchestra through high school, something Henderson and Foster probably find as music to their ears. The vision for the strings program is to introduce it at the high school in two years, with all district schools eventually combining for larger performances.

"It gives students who are taking private lessons a chance to be part of an orchestra," Henderson said. "I would love to see it eventually as one big thing."

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

Reader Comments