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Sacramento State’s String Project expands access to music education for K-12 students

Two afternoons a week at Sacramento State, the hallways of Capistrano Hall are filled with the sounds of bows striking strings and familiar tunes.

But the sounds are not from Sac State music students. They’re the sounds of local children benefiting from a unique university program that aims to expand access to the performing arts.

For more than two decades, the Sac State String Project has provided elementary and secondary students in the Sacramento region with high-quality, low-cost violin and cello lessons, filling a gap in music education that often makes such education inaccessible to many.

A Sac State student teaches music to an elementary and secondary education class.
The Sacramento State String Project offers students like Rachel Lewis the opportunity to teach music to K-12 children in both one-on-one and classroom settings, helping them develop new skills and prepare for a career in education. (Sacramento State/Analy Carrillo)

The program embodies several of the university’s values. By offering affordable music lessons to those who might not otherwise be able to afford them, it helps increase diversity and inclusivity in music. It prepares Sac State students for success after graduation by giving them valuable experience teaching music in a classroom.

The program also speaks to Sac State’s commitment to engaging the community and welcoming local children to campus to foster their creativity.

“For a lot of those kids in String Project, this is their outlet, whether they become musicians or not,” said Sheree Meyer, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. “We know that art can help develop other skills. It helps them behave better and perform better in all their subjects.”

The program was founded in 2001 and initially served the Robla School District in North Sacramento. At the time, that district lacked music teachers, and Sac State provided a place where students could learn to play.

The program eventually became open to everyone and this year 50 students are enrolled. Although there is no age requirement or restriction, most participants are in fourth through sixth grades. No experience with music is necessary.

The one-hour lessons are given twice a week during the academic year, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The annual registration fee is $200, or about $4 per lesson, much less than private lessons.

“The idea is that the cost is not too high,” said music professor Tim Stanley, one of two Sac State faculty members who are “co-master teachers” of the String Project.

“I did the math several years ago, and we were an order of magnitude cheaper than any other open school, and nothing even comes close, except a public school program.”

Classes are taught by Sac State student instructors, often a mix between music performance majors and music education majors. The student instructors are accompanied by Stanley and music teacher Tiffany Unarce Barry, the other co-master teacher, who work with the instructors for approximately 45 minutes before the students arrive to review the day’s lesson plan.

A concert is held at the end of each semester, which Stanley said marks the first time many families step foot on the Sac State campus.

“It shows that the doors (to Sac State) are open to them,” he said. “It shows that (Sac State) is for them in a way that a lot of things couldn’t.”

Stanley, a cellist and former professor at Sac State, has been with String Project since 2004. Barry, a singer and violinist, is in her first year with the program. She previously taught music at primary schools for fourteen years. Sac State Professor of Music Andrew Luchansky serves as director of the String Project.

The program is mainly supported by fundraising. Student teachers, who typically work four to six hours per week, are paid hourly through a grant from Associated Students Inc.

“We don’t just help these children. When we train a good teacher, that training benefits every child the teacher teaches.” — Tim Stanley, Sac State Music teacher and co-master teacher of the String Project

During class, Sac State student teachers alternate between teaching their own lessons, observing the teaching of their fellow students or working one-on-one with participants. For most, it is the first time they have had the opportunity to teach an entire classroom full of young students.

“I’ve never had to work on classroom management before,” said Rachel Lewis, a third-year music major with a dual concentration in performance and education. “I have always taken private music lessons. I teach piano lessons (but) this is my first experience with classroom management, and it was interesting to find out.”

That sentiment was echoed by Emily Nikitchuk, a sophomore who is also studying music performance and music education and plans to eventually become an elementary and secondary music teacher. The role, she said, includes not only instructing the children during the day’s lesson, but also meeting their emotional and social needs. This could be anything from a moment of bonding when a child comes in to taking the extra time to reassure someone else who is worried that he or she is not making fast enough progress.

“I love the students. I think they are my favorite part,” Nikitchuk said. “They are very funny and I enjoy watching them grow as musicians.”

Thanks to its student teachers, Stanley says, String Project’s ability to transform the region is significant.

“We don’t just help these children. If we train a good teacher, that training will benefit every child the teacher teaches,” he said. “It’s an exponential growth process where every generation of teachers we produce produces a generation of musicians, and I can’t do that myself. It’s that kind of strength that I think is really important.”

String Project, Barry said, creates a community of multi-generational musicians — teachers, Sac State students and K-12 students — that she says is “magical.”

“It’s just one of those really cool things where we’re all learning from each other, and we’re all experiencing this journey in music,” she said. “Knowing that every person, regardless of age or level, brings something to the space is my favorite thing. For me it is beautiful.”

About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined Sac State’s communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.