Suzuki violin program expands Bristol’s art focus
Bristol Elementary Principal Steve Ferguson calls them “baby steps.”
That's how his school has been moving toward his goal of becoming an arts magnet. First there was the 54-foot-long timeline mural in the hallway five years ago, followed by the gradual addition of percussion instruments and computerized scoring for the music program, the incremental lengthening of the visual arts teacher's time (three days a week now), and the development of the school's TV news program.
This year there will be violins for kindergarteners and first-graders, as Bristol implements District 11's first-ever Suzuki violin instructional program. The teacher will be Michael Hanson, concert master for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra.
“The arts help develop the other side of the brain,” Ferguson said. “You can't always express yourself with pencil and paper.” At the same, he stressed that the arts emphasis will not mean the neglect of basic education.
Under the Suzuki program, about 60 students, 12 at a time, will get training a half-hour a day, four days a week in the method developed by Shinichi Suzuki, in which youngsters in groups learn to play violin by ear.
By next year, Ferguson hopes he can expand the program to include second- and third-graders, thus setting up a smooth move to the musical-instrument training that the district already offers in elementary schools starting in the fourth grade. He also hopes to expand the school's dance program to include ballet and modern dance studies.
And somewhere in the baby steps he thinks the school might need to change its name to reflect the direction it's heading. Bristol School for the Arts, anyone?
Not surprisingly, funding is a big reason for the slowness of the program's development to date. To reach the present status, Ferguson has chiefly used Title 1 grant money, a district stipend that went to all schools, and some community donations to the district Fine Arts program.
The Board of Education has never budgeted money for Bristol's effort - nor has it yet been asked to. “You can't just go to the district and say, 'I want to do this program, can you provide the funding?'” Ferguson said, adding that first he had to show what arts programs the school could develop on its own. Even now, he is not pinning funding hopes on the district, planning instead to apply for a “large grant” that he hopes will cover the school's needs for at least three years. In any case, he has talked to board members individually, receiving positive feedback, and he hopes to make a presentation at a board meeting in October or November.
Providing encouragement has been District 11 Deputy Superintendent Mary Thurmond. In a recent Pioneer interview, she stressed that Bristol should not lose sight of fundamental subjects, but expressed confidence that an arts emphasis will in fact improve overall learning.
Jan Berry, the literary resource teacher at Bristol, said that students taking the Suzuki classes “will learn to discriminate musical tones, which helps them discriminate the sounds of words.” Additionally, “there is research that music makes the brain connections for math as well as for reading left to right.”
In the Suzuki program, the students will go the first few weeks with just cardboard violins. This gives the teacher time to educate them about respecting the instrument and how to hold it before presenting them with the real violins.
Not an artist himself, Ferguson said he has always been an art appreciator. But pragmatism played a part in the plan that's now taking shape. He said he realized a few years ago that Bristol, like other small under-enrolled Westside schools, needed a special program of some kind to attract more students. This subject came up in the Westside Task Force's report for the school district in 2003. At the time Midland Elemen-tary was organizing its International Bacca-laureate (IB) program, and Buena Vista has since implemented Montessori.
“People talked about ideas that would fit our school,” Ferguson said. After looking at what was already happening there, “I decided art would be the best way to go.”
He has no regrets about that decision, despite the baby steps to get to this point. “It's an exciting time,” he said, then punned inadvertently, “People are pretty jazzed about it.”
Westside Pioneer article