Ozark String Project uses old traditions to bring newfound confidence

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Violin instructor Dani Sallee assists students in the Ozark String Project, an Ava-based initiative that offers low-cost violin, viola and cello lessons.

AVA – Heartstrings are traditionally silent, but musicians in the Ozark String Project sure know how to make them sing. The after-school program, now in its tenth year, allows students to master stringed violins, violas and cellos — and preserve a piece of the Ozarks as they play.

“I was reading something in a class (that said) in order for students to truly appreciate music, they have to start with the music of their own culture,” says program organizer Barbara Deegan, who also teaches elementary music teacher in Ava. “And that hit me hard, because I have always felt like yes, it’s wonderful we have a marching band, but we’re smack in the middle of the Ozarks and this is a string culture.”

The program gives students a chance to celebrate that heritage. It also, however, lends life-lasting lessons: Things like the benefit of hard work, rewarded with tied-to-success self-confidence. For students in Ava — where 65 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced lunches, a national indicator of poverty — such lessons are especially important.

“I would say the most important thing for me is watching the kids realize that they can do something, and that they have control over that,” says Deegan. “It’s not, ‘Gee, I’m a bad player.’ It’s ‘Gee, if I work on this, then something magical happens.’”

Just like when Deegan decided to make the program a reality in the first place.

“It’s been kind of a challenge; it’s exhausting. But it’s been a really uplifting thing for me because,” she pauses, “I get to say that it’s possible.”

How it began

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Students hard at play.

Back when Deegan proposed the project, she didn’t know if it was possible or not — but she decided to give it a go. “I wanted to prove that (a string project) could be done in a rural district,” she says.

Her idea quickly garnered support. Professors at Missouri State University — with whom Deegan studied for a master’s degree in Orchestral Conducting — were in favor of it, as was Ava’s administration. Support of the latter was crucial, Deegan says.

“It has to be a partnership,” she notes. “That’s the only way this works — if it’s a partnership.”

After finding support among those groups, Deegan faced a new challenge: How to make lessons affordable. For many folks in the district, the $30 and up typically charged for private lessons simply wouldn’t be an option.

“People who work minimum wage jobs can’t afford to pay that kind of money for their kids,” says Deegan. “They just can’t.”

To reduce the fee, she launched a group-lesson model. Each lesson currently costs $8, but drops to $4 for additional children in the same family. And if folks can’t afford that, scholarships are available. “Do we have people not pay? Yeah, we work around that,” says Deegan. “We figure it out.”

Those lesson fees, save an annual fundraiser that gathers around $600, fund the entire program. Not even grants are utilized. “The problem with getting grants for something like this is when the grant runs out, the program disappears,” says Deegan. “And I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted it to be able to be freely standing on its own.”

That desire was so strong that Deegan didn’t even pay herself any kind of compensation until this year. “Just this year because I wanted (the program) to be solvent,” she says. “I wanted it to work.”

Teaching the classes

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Deegan leads a recent rehearsal of the Ozark String Project’s orchestra.

That first year, the program saw 12 students participate. Today, there are approximately 75.

One of those students is 15-year-old Calista Giorgianni, a violinist who serves as the student leader — known as concert master — of the group. Looking back at her eight years in the program, she speaks of the direct influence it’s had on her future.

“I’ve made such a great family here, and both of the directors have really just grabbed a hold of my heart,” she says. “But I’ve learned so much, and how I can grow and how I can grow my music.

“It’s really just what I want to do when I get older.”

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Calista Giorgianni, left, serves as the group’s concert master and has played in the program for eight years.

Giorgianni comes on Wednesdays to participate in the group’s orchestra, a gathering of the most advanced students. However, 12 classes in total take place Monday through Thursday and serve all skill levels — and aren’t limited to kids in the Ava district, or even those who own instruments. Around 30 of the students are loaned program-owned instruments, some of which are donated by community members.

“It’s open doors,” says Deegan, noting that homeschoolers are also often involved. “There’s not a wall here, where school is here and community’s there. I want it to be open.”

Overcoming challenges

Community support has also benefited the Ozark String Project, proven by folks such as Alvie Dooms (top) and Junior Marriott. Longtime local musicians, Dooms and Marriott have donated time and talent to the program. (Courtesy of Ozark String Project)

Despite the program’s success today, there have been challenges along the way. It’s taken some time to work kinks out of the system — and flexibility to keep it on track.

Instructors were one issue: For some, it was difficult to adapt to teaching groups of students simultaneously who are at different proficiency levels. Others played by ear and were challenged by reading music. “It wasn’t that they were bad people, they just weren’t teachers,” says Deegan. “They were players and not teachers. And being a teacher is important.”

Even though Deegan is a french horn player and had no experience with stringed instruments, she had to step in as an instructor at one point.

“Right before the second year of the program, the teacher quit. Like, as in, the day before,” she says. “So I started giving myself violin lessons so I could keep one step ahead of (the students).”

Motivating students to practice has also been a challenge. Creativity has been utilized to help address it: For the youngest students, a “music cart” allows practice sessions each morning before school begins.

“I roll a cart of violins and cellos and violas down the cafeteria in the morning,” says Deegan, who notes that a mother acts as a “music monitor” and is paid to watch the students while they practice.

“It’s made a humongous difference in the program,” says Deegan. “A humongous difference. Like from zero to 500.”

But that doesn’t help older students, who leave the building once they transition to middle school. That’s where technology comes into play: Students utilize Google Voice, which allows them to “phone in” and record what they’re practicing for Deegan to evaluate. She keeps track of who calls in the most, turning it into a competition.

Along the way

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Instructor Sallee adjusts student Abrie Pearson’s fingers.

While Deegan has been the driving force behind the program, she’s supported by several other teachers. One of those individuals is Dani Sallee, a professional violin instructor who became an integral element around five years ago and has since begun a similar program in Willow Springs.

“Music has the power to change people’s lives in lots of different and profound ways,” says Sallee, noting it’s one reason she participates in the program. “The second reason is because we’re dying out. (Classical musicians) are a dying breed. So if we can cultivate any new ones so that it doesn’t go by the wayside, that’s important to me.

She stands before a group of four students, clad in pajamas for spirit week, and listens to each play in sequence. She helps one reposition her fingers; another student, extreme concentration across her face, breaks into a smile when Sallee claps her praises.

“I dearly love this instrument, and I love kids,” ways Sallee. “So it’s a perfect fit.”

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Sallee praises student Emma Stewart’s practice.

Someone else that the program makes happy is Dr. Clint Hall, principal of Ava Elementary, who graduated from the district himself.

“I’m kind of jealous that it wasn’t here when I was a kid,” he says. “You know, it just tickles you and makes you feel good that things are improving here. And that there are better opportunities, because that’s what you want as an educator. You want things to be better now than they were then, and you want things to be better five years from now than (they are now).”

Regardless of how the students decide to use those skills, Deegan believes the program will produce rewards for years to come — especially if it helps keep music in the community. “This has never been about pushing kids into fiddle or pushing them into classical,” she says. “It’s about giving them the tools for them to be able to go make the decision on their own what they want to do.”

Want to listen (or support)?

The Ozark String Project’s next concert will be held on April 23 at the Ava Performing Arts Center.

Interested in making a donation? They can be made online, or checks may be sent by mail:

Ozark String Project/Ava School District
507 NE 3rd sSreet
Ava, MO 65608

For more information about the program, connect via the program’s website or its Facebook page. Deegan may be contacted directly at bdeegan@avabears.net.