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The string's the thing

UGA's String Project gives music students a head start in the classroom

by Allyson Mann (MA '92)

On an early September day, the orchestra room at UGA’s Performing Arts Center is overflowing with kids. Ponytails and sneakers are in plentiful supply, and the kids are in constant motion, running, jumping … and sawing bows across stringed instruments with gusto. The low hum of the cello and the high whine of the violin nearly drown out the excited chatter. It’s registration day for UGA’s String Project.

Ignoring the chaos around him, Director Michael Heald answers question after question from parents and marvels at the “phenomenal turnout.” At the end of the day, 91 kids are enrolled in the String Project, a program that provides hands-on teaching experience for UGA students and low-cost music classes for kids.

A week later, String Project master teacher Carolina Melchiori agonizes over the phenomenal turnout. There are 54 students aged 6-10 in the first-year class, and she wonders if they should split it in two to make it more manageable. Clinton “Skip” Taylor, associate professor of music and associate director of the String Project, has a different idea.

“Let’s learn how to handle big groups,” he tells her. “What if you teach in public schools and have to handle that many students alone?”

That teachable moment is what the String Project is all about—giving UGA music students a head start in developing the skills they’ll need after graduation. Long-term, the program also will help alleviate the current shortage of string teachers, estimated at 6,000 nationally. And it provides children with an opportunity that’s no longer an option at many public schools.

Once the decision was made to keep the first-year class intact, Melchiori, Taylor and three assistant teachers developed a strategy: Set up for class early, keep explanations brief, and above all, keep it moving. The teachers take turns up front, with Melchiori often leading and the rest giving one-on-one assistance to the young students.

“Uncross your legs. Feet on the floor. Back straight,” says Melchiori, a master’s student in double bass performance, preparing the class to play notes and rests as they learn to read sheet music.

“That was perfect!” she shouts. Later, a gentle scolding: “Cello! Who played on the rest?”

“Carolina has great presence and disposition to work with kids,” says Selena Blankenship, whose son Conor, 9, is the lone bass student in the first-year class. “She’s firm but polite, and they respond really well to her.”

While Melchiori leads, the other teachers walk around the pint-sized orchestra of violins, violas, cellos and bass and provide individual help—straightening rest cushions, correcting fingering technique, and answering questions.

This experience is invaluable, says Heald, associate professor of violin.

“A large percentage of music majors will teach, and they will need these skills,” he says.

“These students have a position of responsibility over the kids. Doing it is the only way you can learn how important your role is.”

The American String Teachers Association developed the National String Project Consortium in the late 90s, after recognizing that the number of string music teachers was not keeping pace with the number of students. To help universities strengthen the practical training component of their music education programs, the consortium provided $10,000 grants for programs based on the model of a successful program at the University of South Carolina, which has been in existence for nearly 30 years.

David Starkweather, professor of cello, applied for a grant and created UGA’s String Project in 2001.

“Most of the teachers hired in Georgia are coming from out of state. We are graduating string music education teachers, but just not enough of them,” he says.

“Programs vary enormously from district to district. Some, like Gwinnett and Fulton counties, are in very good shape, but others are on a decline.”

Christine Thomas, a senior majoring in violin performance and a String Project instructor, attended high school in Gwinnett but spent her formative years in Flower Mound, Texas, a town of 63,000 north of Dallas. With no opportunities available, Thomas had to transfer to another middle school in order to study violin.

“Most kids wouldn’t know how much they love music until they get an instrument in their hands and then discover they want to play music for the rest of their lives,” she says.

“These kids are really lucky to be in this String Project.”

Graduate student Carolyn Alford has first-hand experience with declining support for strings programs in public schools. Alford taught for six years in public schools in Broward County, Fla., the last two at Ramblewood Middle School in Coral Springs. When the school was under-enrolled by 70 students and facing budget problems, the administration chose to cut music, special education and science—leaving Alford without a job. Parental support for the music program allowed Alford to stay for another year, and the following year she enrolled at UGA as a doctoral candidate in music education.

The String Project is essential, she says. “If we don’t focus on programs that support the arts here, then they’re not going to spread anywhere else.”

“These kids learn to love music here and keep it in their hearts and minds through the rest of their academic life,” she says. “You never know which kid is going to choose a career in music.”

Late in September, the youth orchestra is playing Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major,” a popular wedding processional. A few weeks ago, their first attempts were clumsy and halting—not surprising since it’s a more advanced piece, especially for the violins. But Alford, their instructor, talks them through note changes while also playing violin with them, and this time they get through with only a few minor stumbles.

“There you go—you got it!” she says.

The youth orchestra, new this year, is made up of advanced students including Camilla Dartnell, 13, in her fifth year with UGA’s String Project. Though she studies French horn at school, Camilla travels 45 minutes from Madison twice a week to study violin. She practices 20 minutes a day, occasionally longer, and once told her mother, “Mom, wake me up at 4 a.m. so I can practice for two hours.”

Camilla is getting fabulous instruction, especially considering the price, says Maryann Dartnell (MEd ’04), her mother.

“When I tell people how much it costs, they can’t believe how inexpensive it is,” she says.

Students pay $60 a semester for twice-weekly classes, which translates to about $2.50 per lesson—much cheaper than the $30-$60 average rate for one private lesson.

“It’s a great opportunity for kids,” Melchiori says. “They can still have a musical experience even if their parents can’t afford private lessons.”

Despite the low cost, the program is now self-supporting. The Hugh Hodgson School of Music provides indirect support through faculty salaries and facilities, but stipends for the instructors and other costs are funded through enrollment fees. Though the program operates on a shoestring, an anonymous private gift of $2,500 provides Heald with a measure of comfort, and he’s implemented a vigorous recruiting campaign. During the spring, Melchiori and other instructors visit area schools where they perform and answer questions. At Oconee Elementary School, they met Conor Blankenship.

“He wanted to do it,” his mother says. “He came home talking about it, and he told me so much about every single instrument—especially the bass—and I thought if he can remember that much about it, he must be interested.”

The quality of instruction also affects enrollment so Heald chooses the instructors carefully, and Taylor observes classes and serves as a sounding board.

“What’s great is that they want me to observe,” Taylor says. “They don’t fear it, because they want to do a good job. They’re committed.”

So committed, in fact, that some students—like instructor and violinist Julianne King—are working on a double major that includes both music performance and music education.

“Working in the String Project is truly the highlight of my week,” Alford says. “Something may not go right in another part of my education—I may not do well on a test—but when I step in there and work with the kids in the String Project it feels right.”

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photos by Nancy Evelyn (BFA '84, ABJ '86)

Click on image to enlarge

Venus Sayanon practices pizzicato—plucking the violin strings—during the first-year class of the String Project.

Michael Heald, String Project director and UGA associate professor of violin, helps first-year student B.J. Seaton find his place in the music workbook while Hannah Sellers looks on.

First-year student Heather O'Kelley makes notes in her music workbook.

Peng Peng Liu is a violin student in the second-year class.

Carolina Melchiori, UGA graduate student and master teacher for the String Project, helps a cello player find proper finger position.

Camilla Dartnell, a member of the String Project's fifth-year student orchestra, plays Pachelbel's "Canon in D major." Instructor Carolyn Alford, a UGA doctoral student, accompanies the class.

Cellist Nathan Stagg listens as Joshua Netter (foreground) plays a cello solo for his fourth-year class.

On the cover: UGA student Julianne King instructs String Project student Nanki Udhwani.

B.J. Seaton practices putting his violin in the "ready" position.