Musica Franklin program provides free instruments, music lessons to local children

  • Children enjoy learning to play instruments and more at a Music Franklin practice. RECORDER STAFF/RICHIE DAVIS

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/15/2018 8:32:30 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Nine Sheffield School students smiled wide as teacher Rachelle Ackerman led them in a folk dance in an air-conditioned room as fiddler Bekka Schellenberg played “Turkey in the Straw.”

But this wasn’t about recreation, or even about dancing, really.

Instead, it’s about Musica Franklin, which has been growing in its third year, with an added summer program at Sheffield as well as at Leyden Woods in Greenfield.

The grant-funded program teaches stringed instruments as well as percussion, voice and basic musical concepts using a modified “El Sistema” approach, providing free instruments and music lessons to all children. The program has 30 to 35 students learning violin or — for the first time — cello, as well as drumming, practicing whole-body movement and singing.

“I’m kind of astounded how it’s grown,” said program founder and director Vicki Citron, a Suzuki violin teacher whose idea won an initial three-year $45,000 Massachusetts Cultural Council grant a couple of years after she moved here from the Boston area. “And I’m thrilled.”

A second MCC grant, she said, seems assured.

The five-week Sheffield program, which runs through Aug. 2 four afternoons a week, and the two-week morning program at Leyden Woods, which begins next week and runs through the end of the month, will be followed with an after-school series at Sheffield four days a week as well as a twice-weekly after-school program at Leyden Woods.

As Citron builds the nonprofit program, adding part-time teachers and searching for volunteers to help offer instruction to the participants, she says she’s excited to see students returning for multiple years.

On a recent day, she and Schellenberg handed out miniature violins to the students to run through their preliminaries and begin plucking strings. Meanwhile, in the adjoining room, intern Nate Steele — a Deerfield Academy alumna who’s now a student at Harvard — instructed a student in cello.

“I got three cellos in different sizes, and we’ll see who’s interested,” explains Citron. “Two kids have been desperate for cellos since the beginning. We’re limited by storage space. We barely have enough for violin storage. I hope we can figure something out to have more cellos. Let’s encourage what they want. The cello is really grounding, with its end piece that goes into the floor. And these kids need grounding.”

Sheffield Principal Melissa Pitrat said, after last year’s program, “What I’m noticing most is a pride. There’s a pride in knowing this is an accomplishment they’ve achieved. Students are extremely excited. I know that for some students, this has absolutely been a way to help motivate and focus them. The discipline it takes to be able to have your body sit a certain way and hold the instrument a certain way has helped calm them and focus them. And then there’s just the general excitement about another reason to come to school.”

Sheffield’s Musica Franklin pupils last year performed at monthly all-school meetings, Pitrat said, and when students begin to see other students on stage performing, that motivates them to try it as well, particularly when the program and instrument rental is free.

Citron said she’s heard about students who become much more focused, and who take so much pride in their violin playing that they want to play for their classmates every morning. She’s heard how grounding the program has been for the children of Leyden Woods residents who came from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

“‘This saved her,’” one parent told her. “It’s cool for me to hear these stories, because I don’t know what goes on at home. I don’t see how things change.”

What Citron has seen, was how Musica Franklin helped bring together 30 students from Sheffield and Leyden Woods to play together in Boston in June as part of an El Sistema festival.

“The students from Leyden Woods and Sheffield met each other and just bonded and chatted, singing songs they knew in common,” she said. “We got off the bus, turned our violins, got on stage and we performed for 200 people. Then on the bus on the way home, they spontaneously broke out singing the same song over again that (teacher Gloria Malock) taught them, in Setswana. It was really fabulous to see how music brought them together: the experience of performing and knowing the same repertoire and sharing a language. It was really sweet.”

More than 70 people turned out for a Montague Arts Council-sponsored square dance at Sheffield last month, with a five-member band and participation from some of the student fiddlers.

Citron said she’s appreciated the collaborations with Music at Deerfield and Antenna Cloud, both of which have sent guest musicians to do workshops and perform at monthly family nights at Leyden Woods. She was also pleased with participation by parents, like the salsa drummer dad who has volunteered to drum with the children.

Now, she’s trying to work out transportation arrangements for the students to play at farmers markets in Shelburne Falls on July 27 and Turners Falls on Aug. 1.

And in addition to a second Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, she’s seeking funding from D’Addario Strings and from Baystate Health.

Rodrigo Guerrero manages Mass Cultural Council’s SerHacer grants that fund 19 such programs across the state.

“I’m also impressed in the way Vicki has successfully translated it in a way that it works for the community,” said Guerrero, adding that Musica Franklin has been a “glowing example of growth, not just in the number of participants, but its fantastic programmatic growth and its quality.”

In addition to providing the experience of a “highly qualified educator (who’s shifted) completely going into full-on social action and putting those resources in the community,” he said, Citron “has proven to be a fantastic leader who knows how to tap into the community not just for financial resources, but for partnerships and thoughtful collaborations that improve the quality of delivery. And they’re all local partnerships. To me, that’s fantastic.”

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