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ISU String Project celebrates 20 years of music opportunities for children

Illinois State University's String Project is hosting its spring concert at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Center for Performing Arts at ISU.
Illinois State University's String Project is hosting its spring concert at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Center for Performing Arts at ISU.

String Project, one of Illinois State University’s longest running community programs, is celebrating 20 years of cultivating a love of music in children.

Many public school systems have faced budget cuts and eliminated some elementary and early middle school music programs.

ISU's String Project is an after-school music program that gives children the chance to play an instrument as early as third grade. The program is led by a mix of ISU faculty, staff, and students in the graduate and undergraduate levels.

Kate Lewis is a professor of viola and interim director of the project. Lewis said the String Project is open to children outside of Unit 5 and District 87.

“We do serve the home school community. We serve the parochial school community, and we serve the rural school communities that don’t have strings at all," said Lewis, adding the project does ask all students to play in their public-school music program if there is one.

Lewis said by the time many students reach the sixth grade, their enthusiasm to start from scratch and try something new may not be as strong as it is when they are younger. So, beginning early can be crucial.

“The earlier we can start, we can really tap into the singing and the enthusiasm, the games side of things and make it really fun [and] engage with how children learn. Younger children learn through play,” Lewis said. “I think that that’s a big difference that happens between starting in third or fourth grade like we do and starting in sixth grade as more and more public-school programs are having to do because of budget issues.”

Regardless of budget cuts, most schools do not offer band or music programs until the fifth grade. She said having kids start an instrument earlier makes a difference in their skills later, particularly by high school.

“We see our students as section leaders. They’re the ones that are doing the all-state music festivals. They’re the ones that are really leading those ensembles. So, those two extra years do really make a difference especially by the time the kids get to high school,” Lewis said.

Not only does this program make a difference in the lives of students once they reach high school, but some of the students who began taking lessons through the String Project are the ones that go on to pursue careers in music.

“We have teachers that were in our program as students who have come to study at ISU to then teach the next generation of students. So, we’ve had two of those students grow up and become teachers themselves,” Lewis said.

Lewis said it is not only the children learning in the program that grow, but many of the university students who are teaching the third through twelfth grade students also grow in their confidence.

“We hear so much about how mental health is such a real problem on college campuses these days, and I think that having them teaching students has really given them a purpose to their studies here. It’s given them a purpose to go to their classes and learn new techniques for teaching and come try them out in String Project. It really gives them something tangible to hold onto, and it reaffirms their choice,” Lewis said.

The String Project also serves as a place where third through twelfth grade students and the university students can build relationships.

“They (teachers) come in as freshman and are maybe scared of kids a little bit. They don’t necessarily know how to interact with them, but by the time they’re seniors, they are organizing the concert procedures and they’re team leaders and communicating with parents and really have so much confidence in what they’re doing,” Lewis said.

Typically, 130 students and 20-25 teachers are involved in the program. While the program is recovering from the toll COVID-19 took on in-person activities, roughly 100 students are currently enrolled.

Lewis said the accessibility of the program also helps make it unique.

“In String Project, our tuition is very low compared to comparable programs anywhere else. Additionally, we offer scholarships. Up to 75% of our tuition can be deferred through scholarships thanks to donors and grant support that we have for our program,” Lewis said.

Scholarships also can include loaned instruments. If a family cannot afford to rent an instrument, the String Project finds a way to put one in the child's hands for a year to give all enrolled children the opportunity to learn.

Whether children know right away they want to pursue music, or they just want to try out an instrument, the program seeks to put an instrument in the hands of as many kids as possible.

The spring concert is at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Center for Performing Arts at ISU.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.
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