The year is 2000, and a study by the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) warns of a shortage of stringed instrument teachers nationwide. In Massachusetts the situation is exacerbated by Proposition 2½, which capped property taxes and decreased school revenues. Many districts in the state reacted by cutting programs in the arts, causing prospective teachers to avoid careers in music education.
Enter University of Massachusetts Lowell music professor Kay George Roberts. As an accomplished violinist as well as the first woman and second African-American to earn a doctorate in orchestral conducting from Yale University, Roberts considered the ASTA study a professional call to arms. The result was her decade-long crusade to bring high-quality, low-cost music education to the children of Lowell, one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts.
After learning that ASTA was offering grants to create string programs, Roberts jumped into the highly competitive process. “We are the only center in Massachusetts of the National String Project Consortium,” she says. William T. Hogan, then chancellor of UML, immediately matched the grant with $10,000 per year. Funding also has come from the Parker Foundation, ARTWorks for Kids and individuals and businesses in the Lowell community.
“I founded the UML String Project because I experienced first-hand how important early exposure to music is for a child,” Roberts says. “Without it, I would never have pursued a musical career.”
Roberts, who grew up in segregated Nashville, Tenn., vividly remembers how she began her violin studies. As she tells it, her elementary school music teacher, Robert L. Holmes Jr., approached the superintendent with a plan to teach public school students to play stringed instruments but was told that Blacks were incapable of learning such a complicated skill. Unfazed, Holmes defied his boss’s expectations by founding the Cremona Strings, an all-Black classical ensemble in which Roberts participated. It was a formative experience, and years later she set out to re-create it for a new generation of students.
Today, more than 100 students are enrolled in the UML String Project. They include 50 third and fourth graders in the Prelude Strings, 30 fourth and fifth graders in the Overture Ensemble and 21 sixth to eighth graders in the String Sinfonia. Additionally, 20 high school students, all of whom started with the String Project when they were in elementary school, participate in the Lowell Youth Orchestra, which Roberts founded to offer advanced ensemble training.
Lowell resident Bonna Mai has five children in the String Project, ranging in age from 10 to 16 years old. “I am always amazed to see how the teachers transform their students in just a few months’ time,” she says.
The String Project has a two-fold goal: to train young string players and to offer classroom experience to UML music education students. Supervising the 10 or so student teachers is master teacher Ben Parisi, who has been a professional musician for more than three decades.
“It is not the same as a practicum,” says Parisi. “These teachers have more responsibility and gain more experience.”
Parisi credits Roberts for taking the initiative and creating the String Project, saying she “is a person who doesn’t like to hear ‘no.’”
“She may be small in physical stature,” he says, “but in the world of music education, she’s a giant.”