Driving up to Winterfield Elementary School, nestled in a quiet neighborhood in Charlotte, it seemed like an average day. The brightly colored playground equipment sat nicely outside, although not adorned with acrobatic youngsters, as it surely would be during recess. At 3 p.m., the school looked somewhat deserted from the outside. Famous last words.
Upon entering, Davidson's concertmaster and Donald B. Plott Scholar for violin, Nathan Heath '15, and I sought out to find Rosemary Furniss, Artist Associate in Violin at Davidson. Although both of these violinists are new to the Davidson family, their collective impact has been remarkable. While only a freshman at Davidson, Nathan has admirably assumed the leadership role of concertmaster of the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his coursework and other extracurricular activities, he performs regularly at Davidson as a member of the orchestra, a number of chamber groups, and as a soloist.
Aside from her established performance career and her work with highly talented Davidson student musicians like Nathan, Rosemary also takes an active teaching role in Winterfield's after-school music program. Each week, Rosemary makes the trip over to Winterfield to work with violinists in this burgeoning program. Although this Charlotte Symphony Orchestra outreach effort only began with violinists, they have now expanded to include a bucket band led by CSO's timpanist Leonardo Soto, which focuses on teaching young musicians rhythm, and to include other instruments, including winds and brass.
On this particular day, Rosemary, Nathan and I headed down to the gymnasium, since we would have the pleasure of witnessing a special guest appearance at Winterfield. Before the guest arrived, Rosemary and Nathan took advantage of every moment to work with students. The first to arrive received a personal coaching session on the arrangement of songs from The Lion King. As more and more students streamed into the gymnasium with their tiny violin cases by their side, Rosemary and Nathan began tuning instruments. Each student quickened their pace to reach the front of the line, though never jeopardizing the safety of their violins. In seamless timing, as the last violins were tuned, the special guest entered the room.
Chad Hoopes, who would be performing the canonical Mendelssohn Violin Concerto the following day with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, came to Winterfield to meet with the students. Even amidst a hectic travel schedule, Chad had heard about the great work the folks at Winterfield were doing to support music in the lives of young students and wanted to lend a hand. Chad played a few intricate passages from his repertoire and then offered to answer questions. The air was laced with dozens of wiggling hands from eager students. The enthusiasm of these children’s numerous questions surprised us all. When and why did you start playing the violin? What’s your favorite song you’ve played? Where have you traveled with your violin? Who is your favorite composer? Why do you like playing the violin? Chad's eloquent answer to the lattermost of these questions struck a chord with me. He responded that he liked to play the violin because it was a good way for him to express himself. He told the students that if he was sad, he could play a sad song on the violin and let that emotion out. If he was happy, he could play a happy song from the violin and share that with others, hopefully making them happy too. Although Chad was truly inspiring for these young, budding musicians, these young, budding musicians were inspiring for all of us as well. Their attentiveness and interest in Chad’s story and his love of music was awe-inspiring.
After Chad’s performance and talk, Rosemary, Nathan, Chad and I all moved into the school’s library to work on the aforementioned medley from The Lion King with the older group of violinists. We set up the stands in a circle and got to work. Rosemary went around to each student to help them, while Nathan and Chad played with the group to make sure they were finding and hearing the notes of the melody.
The confidence level of each of the students was wonderfully surprising. Although they had only received the music last week, each student had obviously taken their parts home and practiced. Many were eager to play solo in front of the others, especially with Chad and Nathan looking on. The important thing was not to get every note right. The important thing was just to play.
As the afternoon waned, Nathan and I had to return to orchestra rehearsal back on campus, and Chad had to prepare for the dress rehearsal with the Charlotte Symphony that evening. As we reluctantly bid goodbye to the students, we all found ourselves smiling and rejuvenated. While we went down to Winterfield with the intention to teach, we ended up learning a lot ourselves. We were reminded of the ability of music, in forms both simple and complex, to enliven and empower.
The school, which had seemed so deserted earlier, was so full with sounds as we left. Music, in all its transformative power, echoed in the halls of Winterfield long after its young musicians journeyed home.
The Davidson Music Department is incredibly proud of Rosemary for her fine work down at Winterfield, and Nathan for his initiative and desire to help. We are currently working with the Lake Norman Kiwanis club to bring music education for youth back into our own community. Their initiative, known as MusicalMinds, is similarly an El-Sistema inspired program that aims to initiate social change through music. The program is set to launch this September, and Davidson is thrilled to work with the Kiwanis club as they press forward in their efforts to provide children with the education and empowerment they so deserve.