ELIZABETH A. CONKEY, Staff Writer
NORTH BENNINGTON -- Thursday marked the first day of music lessons for the young cellists and violinists of North Bennington's Village School.
The program, which encompasses instruction in both violin and cello, was originally established by North Bennington residents Kathy and Joe Schor about 25 years ago, after the couple moved to North Bennington from New York City.
The Schors, both accomplished musicians, created what was known as the Bennington Quartet, a group which frequently performed for students of the North Bennington Graded School, now the Village School of North Bennington.
The group served as inspiration for the implementation of the long-standing program, which has been flourishing under the leadership of local cellist Perri Morris for five years, and with the addition of violinist Mary Chambers last year, both of whom serve as program instructors.
Together, the women guide Village School students through their musical journeys, which, for some, begin as early as their first-grade year.
According to Morris, the program has blossomed over the years, the number of students participating having more than doubled ever since she took over the program in 2008.
"When I started, there were maybe five kids on cello and eight on violin," she said. "This year we have 16 violinists and 15 cellists.
Each week, the students have a private, half-hour-long lesson -- the cellists work under Morris' instruction and the violinists under Chambers'.
Morris said that during this time -- these "perfect half-hours," she and her colleague aim to foster a positive environment for their students, full of encouragement.
"My adult students tell me all the time that playing the cello is like a Zen experience, peaceful, empowering, a time for them to get away from their troubles," said Morris. "I try to make the lessons that way for my young students, too. It's a positive, happy time for us."
According to Morris, the violinists and cellists play collaboratively twice a year, once during a winter concert dedicated solely to string instruments and again in the spring, along with the students in band and chorus.
"We will soon begin meeting before school for an ensemble group," Morris said, noting that she and Chambers also have hopes of connecting Village School string students with students of programs in surrounding areas.
Morris teaches private lessons in Rutland and Williamstown as well as in Bennington, and understands the importance of bringing young musicians together.
"Mary and I are really a team, trying to figure out the direction we want to go with our students," she said. "There are a number of youth orchestras in the area, one near Rutland and one here in Bennington, and we would like to have the opportunity for the kids to meet other children who share their interest. It gets them excited."
Morris went on to say that the North Bennington Village School is unique in that it is the only elementary school within an hour's radius that offers a string program. In fact, according to Morris, there are only a handful of string programs in the entire state. The nearest are located in Rutland and Williamstown.
"We are lucky to have one right here in our community," she said.
School Principal Tom Martin, who was inspired by his students and Morris' enthusiasm, took his first ever cello lesson on Thursday. He noted the value of his students having such a comprehensive program at their disposal.
"There are so many different positive levels to something like this. One of the things you want to make sure of in a school is that the kids don't fall through the cracks. Teachers need to find a way to connect with every kid because we're all different," Martin said. "For me, I'm always looking at my school's programs and saying, ‘Okay, now what is the connection point for each child?' The fact that we offer a strong program like this is another way to connect with the kids. To me, that's wonderful."
He continued, "It's offered that breadth of experiences for kids to try and connect with every one of them. Some have really gotten into this (playing the violin or cello). It's pretty cool."
Morris concurred, noting both the educational and emotional benefits of musical education.
"There have been studies that have shown that learning to play an instrument opens some pathway in the brain to learning other disciplines and sort of strengthens the connections in the brain," she said, adding that playing an instrument is, in some ways, akin to playing a sport.
"Playing in a group is just like being on a team," Morris said. "The support and camaraderie of other students doing the same thing, struggling to learn something new, as well as a bit of healthy competition, it gives the kids a bit of incentive to do more and do better."
Morris also touched upon the fact that each week's lesson provides a time for each child to connect with a trusted adult, in a special way, in a nurturing environment.
"Most children now don't live in extended families and some may not have a one on one relationship with an adult," she said. "I'm not even a family member, but the kids come in for half an hour and they struggle, they fail a lot -- It's something that we do together and we therefore have a special bond. They start to confide in me, like a friend. It's a very special relationship that I feel honored to have."
Martin said the program is sure to be one of the Village School's distinguishing characteristics moving forward, as it is a prime example of the strong and "unusual" bond which has existed, and continues to exist between the North Bennington community and its school.
"This program was truly a community endeavor from day one," he said. "It is here, still running because of a constant commitment from the community and a very special connection. It's certainly unique. You don't see it every day."
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.