In 2008, Bethany Sousa, a graduate of Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, asked Bob Arsenault, the school’s band director and chair of the performing arts department, what seemed an innocuous question at the time: Where can I give violin lessons? Little did they know that the question would lead to what is today a burgeoning nonprofit organization that provides violin, viola and cello lessons to nearly 100 students – including 70 children and 30 adults – employs seven instructors, and whose budget has nearly doubled in the past year.
Co-founded in 2009 by Arsenault and Sousa, The Community String Project has proved exceedingly successful. What began as a three-week summer course in 2009 is now a full program of lessons offered to students in grades 3 through 12, as well as adults, nearly every day of the week in nearly every school in the Bristol-Warren Regional School District. The district, a critical partner, allows the organization the use of its facilities for after school lessons and concerts.
The Community String Project is loosely modeled on El Sistema, the famous Venezuelan after school music program that provides virtually free lessons for the purpose of providing at-risk children with, at a basic level, something to do after school, and (more importantly) the skills necessary to excel in school and in life: discipline, critical thinking and focus. Shortly before Sousa popped the question, Arsenault attended a conference at Yale where he saw El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu speak. He was intrigued. Sousa’s inquiry precipitated a revelation: perhaps the El Sistema concept could be replicated in the Bristol-Warren School District to meet a specific need. String instrument lessons hadn’t been offered in the school district since the ‘60s. Children, particularly disadvantaged children, had little or no options if they were interested in string instruments. There were expensive private lessons and that was it.
So Arsenault and Sousa, who, at 22, has been playing violin for 19 years, came up with a plan: provide affordable lessons and instruments utilizing Bristol-Warren School District facilities to interested children as well as adults, and subsidize the costs for eligible children using grants and adult fees. Children who qualify for reduced or free lunches also qualify for subsidized lessons and free instruments. Currently, 40% of students have been subsidized. Students who don’t have an instrument can rent one at an affordable price.
Much has been written about the positive impacts associated with learning musical instruments, particularly the violin, roundly known as one of the most difficult to master and one which has marked peripheral impacts on the musician, including increased concentration, as well as improved grades, focus and study habits. Arsenault invited me to attend a couple lessons to see if the veracity of these assertions were supportable, at least by anecdotal evidence.
A few days later I showed up at Hugh Cole Elementary, at three in the afternoon on a sunny Wednesday, to attend an advanced violin class. The halls, named such things like Perseverance Avenue, were largely empty, as was the music room.
Suddenly a gaggle of girls swept into the room, a ball of giggles, talking and laughing. They grabbed music stands and left the room, their voices trailing off to the left. A few minutes later, a grownup poked her head in. “Mike?” “Yes?” “Hi, I’m Bethany Sousa, the instructor. The class is down the hall.”
Sousa lead me to a room where the girls, seemingly all talking simultaneously, were readying their violins and setting up their music stands in a small circle. Sousa, currently a graduate student at URI, gives me the stats: in this group, there are 11 students, all of whom attend Hugh Cole, ranging in age from nine to 11, and each have been in the program for two to three years.
She strolls into the middle of the circle of music stands. The students are set to go: music is open, bows are out, violins in hand. Sousa has an easy rapport with the children. It’s clear they know each other well and share a mutual respect. She asks for silence and promptly gets it. After announcements, instructions, and other minutiae, Sousa says, “Ok, let’s start with D.” The silence is broken by a chorus of singing violins playing in near perfect unison. They run through some chords, Sousa occasionally stopping them to offer instructions.
They begin practicing a song, the theme from Paganini’s Witches’ Dance. During the second run, Sousa stops them. She asks a student for her violin and bow and she