Vermont Arts Council

The Seen and the Unseen

Close to twenty boys and girls gather in the cafeteria of the St. Johnsbury School. It’s 2:30. Some finish a school lunch, others work in books or on pages of staff paper. In a few minutes, they’ll move to a classroom to play their violins as an ensemble. Learning music this way is a cornerstone of El Sistema, the program that inspired the beginnings of EPIC Music. Free violin instruction is offered after school Monday-Thursday.

Before playing, they sit on the floor of the music room with markers and pencils listening to a violin concerto. Because this program is a partnership with Catamount Arts, the young musicians are able also to attend live performances. Last year, that included the Vermont Philharmonic, Cleveland Baroque, and Natalie MacMaster. This year, they can hear the Shanghai Opera Symphony Orchestra.

Feet apart, eyes ahead, hands relaxed, and first finger on the D string!

After sharing impressions of the piece, they move to playing. First, the D major scale, then short songs based in that key. Next, the students choose songs to play. What you see is a well-managed string lesson for a mixed group of learners. There’s more to it.

According to Anne Campbell, education director at Catamount Arts, the main goal is to grow kids’ social and emotional skills. Learning from peers and cooperating in an ensemble can get to that. As one example, Anne describes the development of a growth mindset. They may begin with thinking “there is no way I can play the violin. It seems too hard.” Then they can. “Not only can they do it, they are teaching their peers. Sometimes they are teaching kids older than they are, sometimes teaching adults.”

Anne also points out “They’re working with a lot of caring and nurturing adults.” In addition to the professional teaching staff who are there every day, there are sixteen volunteer coaches. The majority of them are string players from the Northeast Kingdom Community Orchestra. All have committed to coming in one day a week for the whole school year. The kids will also join in this year’s community orchestra Mother’s Day concert, in arrangements to accommodate all levels of playing. But, Anne adds, “Musical excellence is a side effect. The real goal is trying to make a safe place for them to feel successful and feel that they belong.”

Photo courtesy of St. Johnsbury Academy.
Photo courtesy of St. Johnsbury Academy.

The students are divided into smaller groups. A violin player from the Vermont Philharmonic takes several kids to another room. A retired teacher from the school takes others to work on fingerings with flash cards; another takes one student to follow Jason’s directive: “Just keep her playing. Spend as much time playing as possible!”

Wait. Who’s Jason?

Jason Bergman teaches privately and in schools. He sees himself as a “good mentor for someone who wants to experience playing music as an enrichment of their life.” He continues with “I identify well with students who are often described as ‘quite a handful!’—That’s with an exclamation point!” When he speaks of success, he speaks of his students’ success. An older teen on the spectrum planned her own concert which ended with “her beaming. And you have to know, this is someone who doesn’t just beam.” Another student, an adult, struggled to learn violin for six or seven years, “He just played at his father’s funeral. He played Amazing Grace.”

Jason’s philosophy pours out in one statement after another. “This is not an academic experience, this is a social experience.” And, “We don’t need carbon copies. We need people who feel about being alive.” In reflecting on his students’ experiences: “Music expresses that which we don’t have the words for. I see that a lot. And I know that I enjoy looking for that.”

It is Jason and a local psychiatrist with a master’s degree in music who looked for years for a way to make instrumental and ensemble playing accessible to more children. St. Johnsbury is in Caledonia County—one of three counties comprising the Northeast Kingdom. The region is our state’s most rural and has families with the lowest median incomes. Jason doesn’t know everyone’s background. He does know that inclusivity has many by-products. Among them: salve for the effects of poverty and exposure to trauma.

Toward Social Change

The inspiration and basis for EPIC Music is El Sistema, a global movement of youth development and social change through music. Anne emphasized that it is the “enormous success of that program over more than forty years” that led decision makers at Catamount Arts to choose to make EPIC Music “free of charge (both for instruments and instruction), accessible to any student no matter their experience or ability (no auditions), intensive (eight hours a week), and rigorous.” There are more than a hundred other similar programs that are part of El Sistema USA—all moving toward change.

—Catamount Arts is one of the Vermont Arts Council’s Arts Partners.

Susan McDowell

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