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Symphony helps expand program at Winterfield

By Madeline Will
mwill@charlotteobserver.com

If you asked the kids at Winterfield Elementary what they thought about music, you'd probably hear a lot of responses about how much they love playing the violin or cello.

This school phenomenon started back in 2007 when Courtney Hollenback brought a violin to show her second-grade class.

The next day, the mother of one of her students - Maria - came to talk to her. She said Maria had gone home that night and told her mom how beautiful the violin sounded and how much she wanted to learn to play.

Maria's mom asked if Hollenback could teach her daughter and Hollenback agreed.

"I thought there must be other kids who wanted to learn," Hollenback said. "There's general music (at Winterfield) but no instrumental program."

Once a week after school, Hollenback would hold a lesson for about 10 students who were interested in learning to play, using three violins she had bought with her own money. The program grew. By the third year, Hollenback had 30 kids in her afternoon program at Winterfield - a Title I school with a high percentage of students from low-income families.

In December 2009, she realized the program was growing out of her control. She went on the Charlotte Symphony website and emailed Chris Stonnell, the educational programs manager of the symphony. She told him about what she was doing and that she needed help.

The next day, he answered and a relationship was formed. Symphony volunteers came into Winterfield to teach the students how to play violins and cellos.

"We were able to have a summer camp last year with Maria and two other kids," Hollenback said.

The camp was small but a success. Hollenback and Stonnell began to notice that the student musicians' grades and attendance improved. This summer, more than 30 kids from Winterfield signed up for orchestra camp.

Hollenback said the program has been a blessing for the students: "They wouldn't have had the opportunities otherwise."

The summer camp is funded by a Neighborhood Matching Grant from the city of Charlotte, which awarded more than $10,000 to the Winterfield neighborhood. The money was to be matched, which Winterfield and the Symphony did through volunteer hours and getting discounted instruments and free repairs for the violins.

The weeklong camp, where students learned how to play violins, cellos and how to drum on plastic buckets, concluded on Friday with a concert at Memorial United Methodist Church for parents and church-goers who came out to support.

"I felt comfortable (performing)," said Jacquelyn Sorto, 11, who played in the bucket band and hopes to participate in the camp next year. "It was really fun."

Carlos Neyra, 8, also had a good time. He was one of the two cellists at the concert and wants to continue playing next year.

"My favorite part is when I learned new music and I learned new notes," Carlos said.

The adults also have learned.

"It's been a blessing in my life," Stonnell said. "I've been amazed at the power of music education in children's lives."

As for Maria Rubio Ibarra, the little girl who inspired the whole program, music is still a part of her life. Now 12, she attended camp this year as a student teacher.

Having graduated Winterfield, Maria will now be going to Eastway Middle, and wants to be in its youth orchestra.

"I want to keep playing violin," she said.

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