There may have been a few raised eyebrows and some amused bewilderment when Emmy and I shared our plan to have Newport String Project students begin lessons with paper violins. “Sounds lovely… but how does it work if they don’t make any sound?”
“Won’t the kids get bored when they could be playing a real instrument?”
“Paper? How in the world…?”
The idea of teaching fundamental violin technique with a cardboard substitute has been around for quite a while. At the tender age of 4, Emmy began her fiddling career with a Crackerjack box – she fondly remembers the victory of getting to eat the (admittedly stale) Crackerjacks once she graduated to a real instrument. In recent years, an El Sistema nucleo in Venezuela called La Riconada developed the first Paper Orchestra. Faced with a shortage of instruments for their young beginners, teachers at La Riconada were inspired to think of a creative solution and so developed a curriculum which turned out to be immensely effective in instilling basic ensemble culture and giving students a grounding in technical basics before even reaching a real instrument. Wildly successful variations on the Paper Orchestra idea have been implemented by YOLA in LA, by Big Noise in Scotland and by JAMM in Alaska, led by the ever inspirational Lorrie Heagy.
So how did this globe-trotting idea work out in Newport you may be wondering?
After many weeks of behind the scenes planning and preparation (which featured a slightly obsessive hunt for suitable cardboard), we hosted a Paper Violin Workshop for all our students and their parents. For several weeks, we had explained to our students that building violins together would be a very special occasion and finally the day arrived! Here we all were - teachers, parents and students! It was clear that the students were thrilled to share the moment with their friends and with their families.
There were many remarkable displays of collaboration and moral support between students and grown-ups and between friends and families that evening.
There were also notable examples of very young students showing great patience and perseverance, lost in states of deep concentration.
The room was a hive of activity as families went through the different stages. Cries of "more tape!", "what did I do with that skinny piece of cardboard?", "I need help over here!" and "what's next?" rang out around the room.
As the flat pieces of cardboard came to life and gradually began to take the shape of a real violin, the real excitement began.
Of course, most of the students were keeping a watchful eye on the ultimate destination - the Painting Room!
"Would you like to paint your violins different colors or brown like a real violin?" I asked two of our Kindergarteners. Without skipping a beat, they declared with pride,
"I'm making a rainbow violin! With all the colors!"
"And mine will be BLUE!"
As the parents filed out of the MLK Community Center that evening, many assured us that they would be returning to finish details and some even admitted that they might have had more fun than their kids.
All we can say for sure is that the Paper Violin workshop was the perfect opening chapter of a wonderful adventure for the students of the Newport String Project.
* Special thanks to Julie Davis, director of the El Sistema program at the Bridge Boston Charter School in Dorcester, for her invaluable advice and guidance. Very special thanks also to Melanie Puckett for her beautiful photography - more of Melanie's pictures can be seen on our Flickr account.