Making Overtures
By Lanita Withers Goins, staff writer
Photography by David Wilson, assistant photography editor

A unique community outreach, orchestrated by UNCG faculty and students, introduces elementary students to the joys of classical music

The music wafts from the classroom cottages at Greensboro's Peck Elementary School. Clear treble notes resonate from violins. Bass vibrates from cellos. A simple melody occasionally interrupted by the squeak of inexperience.

UNCG graduate student Christina Fuchs '08 stands in front of the class of fidgety fifth-graders. “Let's try again from the beginning and make sure our fourth finger is high enough.” She sings the note the children should play while demonstrating the proper finger position on her own instrument. Bows on strings, the students mimic her movements, coaxing Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” from their child-sized instruments.

Students in the class are in their second year in the Peck String Lab, a hands-on, collaborative music class provided by the UNCG School of Music, Theatre and Dance; the Greensboro Symphony; the Music Academy of North Carolina and the elementary school. Students and faculty from UNCG and the music academy provide instruction, the symphony provides the instruments and the elementary school hosts students eager to learn how to play the violin and cello.

Dr. Rebecca MacLeod, an assistant professor of music education in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, piloted the Peck orchestra program and has shepherded its development and growth over the past four years. She understands the students' excitement. She dreamed of a similar experience as a 6-year-old girl and tender musician, longing to play the violin with her friends but facing the reality that, for many of their families, music lessons just weren't in the budget.

Dr. Rebecca MacLeod teaching orchestra to children Dr. Rebecca MacLeod was inspired to teach orchestra so that children would have a group of peers to play with — an experience she lacked as a young violinist. She's been one of the driving forces behind the creation and success of the Peck String Lab.

“I was really lucky my parents believed that music was important to my education,” she says. “They went way out of the way to get me violin lessons. My school did not offer orchestra and I missed the opportunity to play my violin in an ensemble.”

That childhood disappointment inspired her commitment to arts education. “I wanted to be an orchestra teacher because I wanted to provide students with the opportunity to play in an orchestra — an opportunity that I felt I had missed.” As one of the primary faculty members in the string education program, MacLeod trains UNCG students to one day teach orchestra programs to students of all ages, knowing with every student she mentors, another child — somewhere — will have a chance to take orchestra in school.

Having the opportunity to learn a string instrument during the school day is rare. String programs fell out of favor decades ago as schools opted for band programs featuring instruments that are more durable. Then there's the cost: Even starter quality string instruments can cost several hundred dollars. “Band instruments were cheaper,” MacLeod says.

“Less than 20 percent of public schools in the US have orchestra programs,” she adds. “North Carolina definitely has less than 20 percent.”

In Guilford County, only three of 67 public elementary schools offer orchestra programs. Two of those are at arts magnet schools.

Peck's program is the shining exception.

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Help the music continue
After years of wear, many of the instruments used in the Peck String Lab are in need of repair or replacement. A gift of $100 would purchase a violin package complete with a case and a bow. A $40 donation can purchase a bow. Bows are a vital component to the success of the string lab and many in use desperately need replacing, MacLeod says.

If you're inspired to help the Peck musicians, you can make a gift online today at www.givetouncgpeckstringlab.com.