Strung Together: Project Unites Future Teachers and Young Musicians

April 13, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

String Project music students at rehearsal at Park Middle School in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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Learning how to play a stringed instrument like a violin or cello isn’t easy. It takes time. It also takes time to learn how to teach young students how to play, a process that has to start early. A relatively new partnership between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lincoln Public Schools is giving music education majors a big jump start to their careers and is also giving young string students valuable instruction.

With her baton in hand, Dottie Ladman is in a familiar place. She taught strings in Lincoln Public Schools for 27 years and even though she’s officially retired, she’s still teaching.

“Welcome back to string project,” Ladman said. Students, with instruments ready, listen closely. “We have today’s rehearsal, we have Monday and we have Wednesday and all of those are going to be big rehearsals like this and then we play our concert. So let’s get started.”

String Project Master Teacher Dottie Ladman. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Ladman is the Master Teacher for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lincoln Public Schools String Project. It’s a program that helps music education majors at UNL’s Glenn Korff School of Music learn how to teach strings to elementary students. The class includes third, fourth and fifth graders from across the district. They rehearse at Park Middle School in Lincoln.

“The most important things that you can teach are at the very, very beginning and if you get that right, then the rest of their string-playing career is going to be easy,” Ladman said. “If you don’t get that beginning right, then their future teachers are going to be having to fix things all along.”

The same holds true for the future teachers. There are seven UNL music education majors circulating through the room, making corrections and giving advice to young students. Practical experience goes a long way.

“You can talk in a classroom about managing a classroom, about teaching vibrato, about teaching fingerings, about teaching playing position,” Ladman said. “But to actually have a third grader in front of you, and you go to say something and it doesn’t resonate with that third-grader and you have to figure out a different way to teach it. They’re finding out that they have to know lots of different ways to teach any particular skill or any particular concept so that they can reach each student wherever that student is.”

String Project student teacher Christian Schuerman. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

The String Project in Lincoln started in 2015 and is part of a larger, national consortium that includes 40 teaching sites. There’s also a String Project program at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. It’s a way to get more music majors interested teaching strings. The number of unfilled string teacher jobs has grown steadily nationwide over the past decade.

In between adjusting bows and tuning-up instruments, UNL music education major Christian Schuerman has a chance to reflect. He’s one of the college students learning how to teach.

“It really is fun to see kid’s eyes light up. I know that. And then they start to sing along with it. Yeah. It’s a very special moment,” he said.

Across the room, UNL junior Melissa Srb helps two students with the correct playing position. She has a background in harp, but also played the violin in elementary school. She’s knows it’s not easy.

String Project student teacher Melissa Srb with string student. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“If I struggled with it when I was younger, I have to find ways to help them learn how to do this and not get frustrated,” Srb said. “But, it definitely has helped me become a better teacher and this is what I decided that I want to teach, beginning strings, when I graduate because of this program.”

Third-grader Kacee Harriman’s violin is almost as big as she is, but that’s not slowing her down. She’s one of 80 students in the String Project this semester.

“I’ve been playing it for about a year. I’m getting way better,” Harriman said.

Alex Delgado, 11, also plays violin. He’s in the Beethoven orchestra. His favorite part of the String Project?

“That at my school that I need to have a certain amount of practice minutes and this takes care of most of it, so I don’t have to practice that much,” Delgado said.

Motives aside, kids like Kacee and Alex are able to start strings a year earlier than they would have been able to in the Lincoln School District’s regular strings program. The UNL-LPS String Project also allows home schooled students and students from area parochial schools to join the program. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis.

String Project student Alex Delgado. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Dr. Karen Becker is the founding director the String Project in Lincoln and also a Professor of Cello at the Glenn Korff School of Music.

“We want the arts to continue. We want orchestras to thrive and bands and choirs and professional ensembles and for people to want to attend concerts and support,” Becker said. “And not only attend, but maybe at some point down the road, maybe participate, to be member of the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra.”

As Dottie Ladman teaches, she knows she’s fortunate. The retirement thing is working out pretty well.

“Third and fourth and fifth-graders are the kind that come running up to you and hug you and say “Oh, hi and thank you” and things like that. I couldn’t think of a better retirement job for myself,” she said.

It’s a job that’s helping future Nebraska musicians and future music teachers come together for a common goal.