Strings AttachedPosted by admin on 3/24/10 • Categorized as Spring 2010
By Lynn Vollbrecht’06
When Beloit College assistant professor of music Oleg Proskurnya looks at his students, he doesn’t just see them as pupils or performers. He sees them as an asset. And, he insists, that asset should be shared beyond the boundaries of the campus.
“As long as we have a huge and awesome resource, our students, …why can’t we share that with the community?” he asks.
Last spring, hoping to forge connections between Beloit College and the surrounding city, Proskurnya started what he calls, quite simply, “the string project.” Now in its third semester, the project has Beloit College string musicians teaching their craft to children at Beloit’s Merrill Community Center and, more recently, Beloit Memorial High School. The community center, located north of the College in Beloit’s Merrill neighborhood, provides after-school programming and other community-oriented events for kids, teens, and senior citizens.
The idea for the project came with Proskurnya from the University of South Carolina, where a community outreach experience was part of his doctoral work, and from the Savanna Symphony Orchestra, which had a similar program. Proskurnya played violin with the symphony for a dozen years.
“When I learned that there are so many kids out there in Beloit who are desperate for music lessons, but they just cannot afford it, I basically used this project as a connection between us and the community,” he says.
He also wants to dash all notions of the College as an inaccessible ivory tower on the hill. “The worst thing I could see is that those kids (in the community) feel isolated from the resources we have. Not just kids, but their families, too. We have to break this wall so that anybody’s welcome.”
Now, Proskurnya’s students bring the experience of music out into the community. “I thought that maybe to have a string project wouldn’t be a bad idea, to just let our students—who are advanced in performing on their instruments—share their knowledge and experience with community children,” he says.
Getting Beloit College students on board was easy. The project started with about eight students giving music lessons, and Proskurnya estimates that the number nearly doubled by the spring 2010 semester.
For years, violinist/violist Megan O’Doherty’12 has taught her instrument during the summer at an Oregon arts camp. She found Proskurnya’s string project to be the perfect fit, both for herself and her students. “I think music is a great outlet for kids, and I enjoy knowing that I’m giving back something, especially to kids who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise,” she says.
As Merrill Community Center Executive Director Regina Dunkin explains, “We’re in the heart of a fragile neighborhood. Our center’s open to the entire city of Beloit, but we’re able to reach the children in the neighborhood, in the immediate vicinity, who really need it the most.”
Dunkin says the center’s existing music and arts programs have long been popular with Merrill Center kids.
“We are trying to enhance our art projects here at Merrill Community Center, because we are always trying new ways to reach out to the youth in the community,” she says. “When I saw the kids’ interest in music, when Oleg approached me, I thought this would be a good fit. What he’s done is enhance the project that we have going on here.”
In the string project’s initial incarnation in the spring of 2009, Merrill Center staff brought children from the after-school program to Eaton Chapel on campus for music lessons with College students. Now, the Beloit College musicians travel to Merrill Center, each for about two or three hours per week, and the local Voigt Music Company loans instruments for the lessons.
Both Proskurnya and Dunkin credit former on-campus VISTA volunteers Jim Burling’07 and Anna Cummings’07 with helping connect the Merrill Center with Proskurnya and the College’s string musicians. Beloit College’s Director of Community-Based Learning Carol Wickersham helped orchestrate the logistics of having the College students participate in the project.
Facilitating community/College relationships is nothing new for Wickersham.
As director of the College’s newly installed Liberal Arts in Practice Center, adjunct instructor of sociology, and the coordinator of the Duffy Community Partnerships internship program, she is used to filling that role.
“The coming together of Oleg’s string students with students at Merrill Community Center is one of many examples where campus and community goals mesh and the fun and learning begin,” Wickersham says. “One of the things that I do is consult, broker, and promote community-engaged adventures like those Oleg and his students are embarked upon. I help faculty and students find community opportunities that match their goals and navigate once they are there.”
While Proskurnya’s goal is to further connections between the College and community through music, Wickersham posits that the so-called “Beloit bubble” is much more porous than most people think, if not already popped.
“I would challenge that it is largely a conceptual bubble,” she says. “Students who wish to engage with the community find opportunities around every corner.”
Alyssa Boge’10 is one of the College musicians involved in the string project who actively sought out ways to become more involved with the off-campus community.
“My first year, I didn’t really do anything out in the community, and I kind of really felt that. I wanted to do something, even if it was just an hour or two a week,” she says. She now teaches viola and violin at Merrill Center, and recounts how satisfying it is to see her young students succeed.
“We’re starting to get into songs and how to realize that the note here has a
note on the page, and that you can figure it out just by reading it, that it’s like reading a book, but in a different sort of way,” she says. Her students recently performed a rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” “I think [the best part] is when they realize they can do it. That’s really exciting—showing them that they can do it, that they can figure it out.”
Taking time in Beloit to get outside a classroom also has benefited Boge in her academic studies. “In terms of experiential learning, I think it’s good, because especially with museum stuff, a lot of it’s education,” says the anthropology and Russian major, who is also carrying a museum studies minor.
“So, how do you teach someone music? What’s the best way to go about it? And when do you introduce this concept, and when do you decide to wait on it? What do you teach, when do you teach it, and how do you teach it so it’s not just boring?”
According to Proskurnya, the simple act of getting out into the community is beneficial to the College’s students, whether or not the work is related to an obvious career path. “Because students are gaining experience, they are getting internship credit, which they can put on their resume. Even if they do not proceed in life as a musician, they will have had an experience working with a community,” he says.
On the flip side, not all of the children at Merrill Center will go on to become musicians, Dunkin points out, but that doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from exposure to a collegiate setting, or contact with the college students themselves.
“I think the Merrill Center kids see the Beloit College kids as mentors, and some, in a way, like big brothers, big sisters,” Dunkin says. “I think the Beloit College students have an effect on them and also their desire for furthering their education. So often we talk about how ‘You should go to college, you need to go to college …’ If this music is a way to spark their interest, it’s helpful. I think too often it seems unattainable, a dream. And they have to see that they can make their dreams a reality. They’re able to do that when they see the different array of college students. I know without Beloit College, we would not be able to do what we do.”