Nicole Parks Says the Arts Are Crucial for a Thriving Education

Nicole-Parks-1 Image by Marlon Pitter
String Project Director Nicole Parks.

By Marlon Pitter

Nicole Parks knows the value of music education. As the new director of UMass Lowell’s String Project, she wants to share the experience of learning – and teaching – music to as many people as possible.

Founded in 2001, the UMass Lowell String Project provides musical instruction to students from kindergarten through grade 12 who live in the Merrimack Valley. The program is part of the National String Project Consortium, which is made up of more than 40 other String Projects at universities around the country.

Parks, an adjunct faculty member in the Music Department, took over as director of the String Project in September. A violinist, she teaches violin and viola and leads conducting courses. She also conducts the University Orchestra.

Parks says the experience she had learning music as a child made a lasting impression on her.

“The work I did with my middle and high school orchestras and their respective teachers was absolutely the beginning of my foray into education,” she says. “Those teachers could see that I was going to be an educator and pushed me to explore what that meant with my peers and younger students.”

With arts education being squeezed out of public schools, Parks says programs like the String Project are more important than ever. She also sees great value in the paid teaching experience that UML students get as instructors in the program.

“Most music majors will be teaching at some point in their careers, and this gives them hands-on experience that they can use to apply for jobs when they graduate,” she says.

Parks hopes to expand the range of learners and educators in the program over time by allowing qualified UML students outside the Music Department to become instructors and by offering adult classes.

“Growing the program would be a wonderful thing for everyone,” she says.

Parks discussed her goals for the String Project and the role it can play in the community.

Nicole-Parks-2 Image by Marlon Pitter
Parks assists a String Project student with his hand placement on a violin.

Q: What is the value of music education programs like the String Project?

A: Programs like this are absolutely imperative for a thriving education for children. With access to the arts being reduced at public schools around the country, especially in a lot of lower-income schools, it's really unfortunate that these students are not having the opportunity to learn what the arts can be.

We hope to fill in that gap for as many students as we can and offer this education for them that can apply to other parts of their lives. If you're learning music, you're not just learning about the mechanics of putting a violin on your shoulder or what the notes are; it's collaboration, listening skills, deciphering what you read on sheet music into a concept that you then try to translate into a sound and being able to collaborate and work with your peers. Students pick up on these things really quickly in music classes, which can be transferred to their other educational pursuits.

As such a huge presence in the local community, UML is in a unique place where we can offer that kind of experience to public school students at a very low fee. In doing that, we can hopefully engage students who otherwise wouldn't have access to this outside their schools. Because the schools are cutting funding to the arts, we are trying to fill in that gap and give them that opportunity.

Without the arts in education, there isn't a well-rounded education, so it's a disservice to students to not have access to the arts.  We're happy to be able to help as much as we can.

Q: What changes do you plan to make to the program going forward?

A: I would love to work more alongside the public schools to figure out what their teachers are looking for and how we can collaborate.

Another goal is to start incorporating an adult beginner class for either university students or folks in the Greater Lowell area who are interested in picking up violin, viola or cello as an adult. I think we can gear this toward helping to bolster awareness for the arts and give people something they can do that they often think they can't because they're not children anymore.

The other thing would be getting more students on campus involved with teaching for us. If there's somebody who played violin, viola or cello all through high school who is looking for a job on campus and loves music, we would love to see if it could be a good fit to have (them) teaching with us. … If we have more teachers, then we can serve more students.

Q: What is the timeline for the String Project this year?

A: We meet with the students on Tuesday and Thursday evenings each semester, for about an hour or 90 minutes with each class. We have various levels of ensembles. We're learning for the sake of learning, but also preparing for a performance on campus that we’ll have at the end of each semester. This semester, I believe the performance will be on December 19.

We'll continue after the winter break in January and work toward another performance sometime in May. That's a time when the students can have their parents, their grandparents and any family friends come see all of the hard work that they've been doing throughout the year and showcase what they've learned.