The Omaha Conservatory of Music soon will launch a new program aimed at providing free music instruction, and tiny take-home violins, to more youngsters in the community.
The program, called Violin Sprouts, will start Sept. 16 at Benson West Elementary School, 66th and Maple Streets, and focus on area 3- and 4-year-olds who might not otherwise have the opportunity.
Ruth Meints, the conservatory's executive director, said the Benson West site will take up to 96 students spread among group lessons, each of which will be headed by a lead and assistant teacher. Some spots are still available.
Youngsters must be accompanied by a parent or caregiver, who will receive instruction in helping kids practice at home. Students will get instruments to take home. Conservatory staff recently unpacked 100 new kid-size violins.
The program itself is loosely patterned after the philosophy of El Sistema, a program that began in Venezuela. One of El Sistema's best-known progeny is Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic, 30-something Venezuelan violinist and conductor who serves as music director of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
One of El Sistema's key principles, Meints said, is that instruction should take place in neighborhoods. So the conservatory is teaming with the Omaha Public Schools to launch the program. While Benson West will be the first site, the conservatory plans to start another at Liberty Elementary, near 20th Street and St. Mary's Avenue, in January.
All together, the conservatory hopes to start four Violin Sprouts programs this school year. So far, the conservatory has raised nearly $1.28 million toward the $1.8 million cost of bringing four sites to full capacity over five years.
That would be about 1,140 students, allowing for new students each year and for some attrition. With those numbers, the annual cost of providing lessons breaks down to about $317 a student.
Ultimately, she said, the conservatory would like to expand to 10 schools, either in Omaha or at other schools across the state. She's already heard from several interested parties outside Omaha.
The aim, Meints said, isn't necessarily to discover the next Dudamel but to provide youngsters with the benefits of music education and have an impact on the community.
Meints said studies show high correlations between such early intervention programs and future academic and economic success.
Violin Sprouts will be launched in schools where at least 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-prices lunches, a commonly used indicator of poverty.
And the program will focus not only on music but also on skills that students can use throughout their academic careers, starting with kindergarten readiness. Such skills include the ability to focus and cooperate as well as eye-hand coordination and early alphabet recognition. Meints is a member of the Learning and the Brain Society, a national organization that brings together brain scientists and educators with the aim of applying the latest research.
“This is my baby,” said Meints, who has been teaching violin for 25 years. “This is important to me because this is a way to make a really big difference, and I wouldn't be able to do this if there weren't people in the community who also had the vision (that) this kind of thing could happen.”
Among those major supporters are the Weitz Family Foundation, the Slosburg Family Foundation, Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith.
Paul Smith, a member of the conservatory's board, said he and his wife, both music lovers who are broadly involved in Omaha's arts scene, have come to understand the impact music instruction can have in young people's lives.
“Very few of these young people will pursue a career in music,” Smith said. “But it is a valuable and important thing. You have a lot more in your life than just work, and the things we're exposed to — music, art or literature — can be lifelong assets to a person and help them connect in the broader community.”
Exposing young people to music, he said, also makes the community stronger.
“We're very pleased with the level of support we've received so far,” he said.
Terry Burton, Benson West's principal, said he's excited because most of the youngsters eventually will attend the school. Participating will help teach them about perseverance, responsibility and teamwork. Research also indicates music helps build math skills later on.
“It'll help them when they get to school,” he said.
Meints developed the 32-week curriculum. Her son, Dryden Meints, a vocalist and viola player, scored Sprouts violin music for accompaniment by piano or full orchestra. That will make for easy partnerships with area music schools and orchestras, Meints said. Violin Sprouts already is partnering with the Omaha Symphony. Musicians will offer clinics for students, and Violin Sprouts will perform with the symphony April 6 at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
After youngsters complete the Violin Sprouts curriculum and enter kindergarten, they'll be able to take conservatory classes at the schools through third grade. Those classes, offered after school, will bridge the gap between Violin Sprouts and existing strings programs in the community. Most, including the one offered by OPS, begin in fourth grade.
The conservatory also plans to continue a partnership it began last fall with the Salvation Army Kroc Center, offering Violin Sprouts as well as strings, guitar and brass for older students. But the Violin Sprouts portion now is free, and students now can take home conservatory-provided violins. Previously, students had to go to the South Omaha center to practice outside lessons.
Meints said the conservatory also is working with Dr. Nicholas Smith, a researcher at Boys Town National Research Hospital, to develop a research project focused on Violin Sprouts. The longest previous study of the effects of music instruction that she's aware of covered a three-year period, she said.
“This particular program, because of its length, could provide the most longitudinal information on the effects of music education ever done in the U.S.,” she said.