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10-year-old kids making sweet music: ‘I like all the sound we make’

February 10th, 2013 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & Photos by Katie Swain

LOGAN—More than 15 years ago, a grassroots movement of parents had a vision for an elementary school orchestra program for their children. In 1999, a small, early-morning string class started at Providence Elementary School. By 2003, the program had grown to include string classes for 4th and 5th graders in every elementary school in the Cache County School District.


4th graders at the Mountain West String Academy practice their plucking—Benjamin Johnson (front), Autumn McBride (center) and Karissa Eames. KATE SWAIN photo

Today, after nearly 14 years, Mountain West String Academy’s students, parents and teachers are proud of what they’ve built.

“The first class we taught had about 10 students,” said James McWhorter, the program director. “Now we’re in 16 schools, we have 32 classes, about 40 teachers and assistants, and more than 400 students.”

And the idea’s influence has spread all the way up to high school orchestras as those 10-year-olds have grown up.

“We can definitely see our influence in high school orchestras,” McWhorter said. “They have experienced a lot of growth and they now have bigger and better orchestras.”

That was one of the goals, says Laura Morgan, one of the founding MWSA parents.

“Probably my main vision for the program was to see the high school orchestras grow,” said Morgan, a teacher in the program. “When we started, the Mountain Crest [High School] orchestra had only seven kids, now there are about 60. That’s natural growth that started from our elementary schools.”


Hanna Jenson likes when the whole orchestra performs: ‘I like hearing all the sound we make.’ KATIE SWAIN photo

Morgan’s four kids went through the program, and she says the impact goes beyond music. There are very individual positive results among the people involved, she said.

“My oldest daughter ended up majoring in cello performance in college,” Morgan said. “I don’t think she would’ve done that without MWSA and the knowledge and access to great resources it provided for her.  MWSA had a huge impact on her life.”

McWhorter said some of the alumni of the program have returned to teach for MWSA.

“For a lot of these kids, orchestra is setting up opportunities for the rest of their lives,” he said.

For Kristen Steiner, an MWSA teacher and an entrepreneurship and public relations major at Utah State University, the orchestra gives her an opportunity to apply her string skills in a very rewarding way.

“I love the kids I teach,” Steiner said. “It’s so cute to watch things click with them and see them improve.”

Benjamin Johnson, a 4th grader in the Nibley Elementary MWSA orchestra, says he likes it that practicing pays off.

“I like learning new songs,” Benjamin said. “It’s hard but fun. And it’s really fun at the concert to play what we learned because everyone says you do so good.”

McWhorter says he is pleased with the program’s impact. “We’re trying to build something that will be around for a long, long time in Cache Valley,” he said.


Teacher Kristen Steiner conducts her young orchestra at Nibley Elementary. KATIE SWAIN photo

For Steiner and the other teachers, combined elementary orchestra concerts, which happen twice a year, are a big payoff.

“This last concert was a big rewarding moment,” she said. “You get so nervous in class about how it’s going to end up, but when they’re up there, sitting up straight and just moving their bows regardless of what happens, you can see them loving what they’re doing, and it always turns out great.”

Steiner said she can also see how her students grow in confidence.

“I didn’t used to like concerts,” said 4th grader Ciera Johnson, a student in Steiner’s Nibley orchestra. “But now I like concerts. I like being in front of all the people.”

So does said Hanna Jenson, one of Ciera’s classmates. “I like hearing all the sound we make.”


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