ASO's Kids With StringsBy Martha Barksdale

With admirable concentration for a group of preschoolers, the five children have fixed their attention on violin teacher Corina Brito. She’s already demonstrated and helped them correctly hold their miniature foam violins. Brito has patiently coaxed the little hands into the correct position for holding the bow, telling them not to grab it, but to gently curl their fingers around.

Now their young voices fill the air as they move the wooden “bows” according to the song – “Up like a rocket, down like the rain. Back and forth like a choo-choo train.” The children are backed up by “practice partners” – teen musicians matched with them to lend support and help keep them on track.

It’s a long way from symphony hall, but these could be the first steps on the road to a lifelong love of music.

That is the hope of the forces behind the Kids With Strings program, a joint initiative between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Beacon of Hope Renaissance Learning Center. Kids With Strings received a $100,000 Humana grant in November, and classes at the Renaissance Learning Center began in March.

Designed to serve as a cultural and arts enhancement program for at-risk youth who have had no previous exposure to the arts, Kids With Strings will provide access and education through daily classroom instruction, interactions with ASO members and students and concert attendance. It is part of the ASO’s Talent Development Program.

ASO Community Catalyst Mariel Reynolds said Kids With Strings began last fall when she was introduced to the Renaissance Learning Center by Kim Forde, a parent of a student in ASO’s Talent Development Program.

“After visiting the school and meeting with the director, Lydia Meredith, we formed a committee to explore what a string program could look like,” she said.    The committee consisted of ASO Director of Student Musician Development Beth Wilson, ASO Assistant Concert Master Justin Bruns, ASO volunteer Patrice Wright-Lewis, Renaissance Learning Center parent and board member Darrick Young, in addition to Meredith, Forde and Reynolds.

Meredith said Kids With Strings “engages the mind, body and spirit,” and fits in perfectly with her philosophy of education. “At Beacon of Hope, we believe that enlivened spirit is the foundation that builds healthy minds and healthy bodies.”

In addition to providing string instruction to children who would otherwise not have the opportunity, Reynolds said she hopes Kids With Strings will “begin growing the population of talented, well-trained African-American and Latino classical instrumentalists in the metro Atlanta area.”

Moving children on to the ASO’s Talent Development Program for grades four through 12 is the ultimate goal. The TDP started in 1993 as the first intense training program established by a major American orchestra to support talented African-American and Latino students of every orchestral instrument. Every student who has completed this program has graduated from high school and continued on to college.

“The launching of Kids With Strings is invaluable to how we imagine the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s work in the community, and the future of the Talent Development Program,” said ASO President and CEO Allison Vulgamore. “This partnership with Beacon of Hope and Humana will allow us to do just that in an authentic and meaningful way.”

Meanwhile, in the classroom Brito says she’ll be happy just teaching her little pupils the fundamentals. Maybe by December, they’ll be playing a simple melody, she says with a smile.

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Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.