By Katharine Webster
Josh Santana ’20, ’22, a Lowell native, fell in love with the violin when he was 7 years old after hearing a solo violin performance on television.
“The sound was just miraculous, beautiful,” he says. “I wanted to be a violin star, like on TV.”
The following fall, he joined the UMass Lowell String Project, a music education program open to any child in grades two through 12, which was then in its second year. Santana showed talent and dedication right away – and led the beginning ensemble during the Spring Showcase concert.
He never looked back. He rose quickly through the String Project ensembles, even as he learned to play clarinet. While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance and community music education at UMass Lowell, he got teaching experience as a “teaching artist” with the String Project and ultimately as co-conductor of its Lowell Youth Orchestra, the most advanced ensemble.
Santana says his experiences in the String Project were joyful and creative.
“As a child, the way I always enjoyed music the most was through the String Project,” he says. “It was communal. There were no educational standards we had to meet, but we all got so much better.”
More than two decades after it began, the UMass Lowell String Project continues to bring accessible, high-quality music and instrumental education on violin, viola and cello to Lowell-area schoolchildren – and to give UML music students valuable teaching experience. And teaching artists like Santana are passing a legacy to the next generation of aspiring musicians.
Part of a national effort, the String Project originated at the University of Texas at Austin in 1948. The National String Project Consortium now includes 39 programs at colleges and universities across the country. The goal is to develop excellent string instrument teachers while providing affordable musical instruction to children and adults in diverse communities.
The UMass Lowell String Project launched in 2001 primarily to serve children in the Lowell public schools, which did not have a strong K-8 instrumental education program at the time, as well as to bring more string instrumentalists into UML’s music education programs, says the current faculty director, Music Education Prof. Gena Greher. However, the program is open to any child who can come to lessons and rehearsals on campus.
The UML String Project was led by Music Prof. Emerita Kay Roberts until she retired; Greher took over as education director in 2013. Allyn McCourt ’15, like Santana a “graduate” of the String Project and UMass Lowell, serves as part-time executive director and conductor of the Lowell Youth Orchestra.
About 100 children join one of the String Project’s five ensembles – Prelude, Overture, Accelerando, String Sinfonia and the Lowell Youth Orchestra – each year. They learn how to play string instruments in twice-weekly classes and rehearsals.
Although the numbers dropped during the 2020-21 academic year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Greher, McCourt and the UML students who serve as teaching artists found ways to keep the children learning, including offering individual online lessons.
Schoolchildren in their second year with the String Project take a creative sound play class, and during the pandemic, they created music for videos of one-act plays written and acted by students in the Free Soil Arts Collective, a local theater ensemble and education program.
“They got to explore all the different sounds their instruments could make. That was really fun for the kids,” Greher says. “They’re very, very musical kids – very precocious, and willing to take risks.”
In-person classes and rehearsals returned during the past academic year, and Greher expects the String Project to be full again in the fall. She also is planning a belated 20th anniversary celebration.
Undergraduates in UML’s Introduction to String Pedagogy class get what is often their first teaching experience by partnering one-on-one with beginning students in the String Project’s Prelude ensemble. Other students are paid to teach, like Rachel Janielis, a music studies major from Wakefield, Massachusetts, whose primary instrument is cello.
Janielis says she received a scholarship to UML that required her to teach in the String Project, but she loves it so much that she would do it anyway.
“I really like teaching the kids. They’re all eager to learn, and it’s really fun to see how they progress during the year,” Janielis says. “The teaching experience from the String Project will build up my skills.”
Samantha Thompson, a first-year graduate student in community music education from Hood River, Oregon, ran the String Project at her undergraduate school, Pacific University.
Finding out that UMass Lowell also has a String Project was “a happy coincidence” – and she says that working with the ensemble is giving her more experience in support of her goal: to teach music in low-income communities.
Parents and family members say their children look up to the college students.
Irma Ortiz’s 9-year-old granddaughter, Daniella Nuñez, heard some UML students from the String Project play at her school two years ago and told her mother she wanted to learn violin. She’s now in her second year with the String Project and loves to play for her family, Ortiz says.
“Her dad lives in Ohio and she plays for him on Zoom, and for the December concert, his whole family flew out here so they could come,” Ortiz says.
Tara Chin, who emigrated from Cambodia with her family in 2013, says her 8-year-old daughter likes watching YouTube videos of classical violinists and “wants to play like them.” So when the little girl brought a flyer for the String Project home from school a year ago, Chin signed her up.
“I love music and she loves music, but I didn’t get the opportunity to study music in my country,” Chin says. “My daughter really enjoys it, and I’m going to push her and motivate her and support her every year until she learns how to play everything.”
Penny and Herminio Sanchez say they signed their son up four years ago at the suggestion of his music teacher at the Murkland School in Lowell. Their son, now 12, has autism spectrum disorder and anxiety, his mother says. Through the String Project, he’s found a supportive community and friends, the motivation to study piano and guitar in addition to violin, and a role model: Josh Santana.
“Josh has been a great mentor for him,” Sanchez says. “He praises Hermie and gives him the encouragement he needs to stick with it.”