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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

A student orchestra experience rooted in rural Utah is here to ‘bring the music’

In small towns across Utah, it’s tough for kids who play violin or cello to get the chance to play with others in an orchestra. One local music festival is trying to change that with a workshop that brings rural students together.
David Condos
/
KUER
In small towns across Utah, it’s tough for kids who play violin or cello to get the chance to play with others in an orchestra. One local music festival is trying to change that with a workshop that brings rural students together.

Wayne County is nearly 2,500 square miles of alpine peaks, green farm fields and red rock deserts in south-central Utah. The scenery is plentiful, but people are not — especially if you’re looking for orchestra kids.

“There's probably three or four people that play violin, and we all have to drive down to Torrey to go to the same teacher,” 11-year-old violin student Journee Pace said of her hometown of Lyman.

These kids come from very small towns. Lyman and Torrey have around 200 residents each, and unlike many urban or suburban school districts, Wayne County doesn’t offer an orchestra program.

That’s why, for kids like Pace, getting to take part in a one-day youth strings workshop in their backyard is a big deal. Two dozen students came together at the county community center in Bicknell, population 323, to learn from world-class symphony musicians from as far away as England and Germany.

“They're professional violin players, and just seeing how far they went makes me want to do it, too,” Pace said.

Opening small-town kids’ eyes to those types of big dreams matters, said the county’s only local strings instructor, Lynsey Shelar. She started to teach private lessons in 2011, and her Sleeping Rainbow School of Music now has 12 students from all over the county.

“The best part for me is when I see my own students … to see that ‘A-Ha’ moment on their face,” Shelar said. “This is what music is about.”

Local strings teacher Lynsey Shelar, center, talks with students at the workshop in Bicknell, Utah, June 15, 2024.
David Condos
/
KUER
Local strings teacher Lynsey Shelar, center, talks with students at the workshop in Bicknell, Utah, June 15, 2024.

The workshop is part of the Torrey Chamber Music Festival, which has used donations and grant money to host similar classes and camps for strings students since 2017. Even though the kids may not grow up to play in a symphony, the lessons they learn now about connecting with themselves and with others can have far-reaching ripple effects.

“Music is about playing with emotion and expressing and having that ability to communicate beyond words,” Shelar said. “So if we can get kids to feel that, we are building empathy in our communities — and compassion. I feel like we need a lot of that right now.”

There are plenty of barriers when it comes to picking up strings in rural areas like Wayne County, she said. First, there’s often a lack of exposure to these instruments and this type of music.

Cello student Cru Peterson, right, volunteers to lead his small group during rehearsal, June 15, 2024.
David Condos
/
KUER
Cello student Cru Peterson, right, volunteers to lead his small group during rehearsal, June 15, 2024.

Geographic isolation plays a factor, too. The nearest music store that sells, rents or repairs string instruments is a 2.5-hour drive away, Shelar said. There are also financial barriers. Students often borrow their first violin or cello from school to try it out, but Wayne County’s district doesn’t give them that option.

Even for those who can get the right equipment and learn to play, there aren’t many chances to perform as a group, which Shelar said is vital for keeping kids engaged and helping them see the progress they’ve made.

“They love playing together,” Shelar said. “It's exciting to see the light in their faces.”

Viola student Brigette Winters from the nearby town of Loa, population 595, agreed isolation can be a downside of learning these instruments in a community where there aren’t many other people your age who play. But that also makes the rare occasions when they come together all the more special.

“Sometimes I think it'd be nice to go out and be with people who are really good to help push me, but I really enjoy doing it here,” Winters said. “It's just fun to think, ‘Oh, this small town that has not much of anything has a pretty awesome orchestra group.’”

The workshop’s instructors came from as far away as Germany and England, giving local students a rare opportunity to learn from a variety of professional musicians.
David Condos
/
KUER
The workshop’s instructors came from as far away as Germany and England, giving local students a rare opportunity to learn from a variety of professional musicians.

The challenges strings students in Wayne County face can be seen statewide. Utah State Board of Education Fine Arts Coordinator Laurie Baefsky said small-town schools deal with several obstacles when it comes to adding string music programs.

First, there’s a lack of orchestra instructors broadly. The typically smaller salaries for teachers in small towns also make it harder to keep them in those positions for the long term.

“We're very aware, statewide, of a teacher shortage, and that is not exclusive to rural areas. Although we see it more acutely in the rural areas.”

Demand for music education in small towns is not the problem, she said. As a matter of percentage, participation in the secondary school band in Wayne County outpaces that of much more populous Salt Lake City or Utah County. The smaller tax bases in sparsely populated places, however, can make ongoing funding for extra programs hard to come by.

“If something gets cut, are they going to cut the football team or the strings program?” Baefsky said. “So I think there’s a sense of insecurity with our arts educators in Utah, where we always have to make a case for the arts.”

This can be especially challenging, she said, because some small-town residents may not see the value of teaching kids an instrument when the local economy is based on something different.

Even if the workshop’s students don’t grow up to play in a symphony, the lessons they learn about connecting with themselves and with others can have far-reaching ripple effects in their communities.
David Condos
/
KUER
Even if the workshop’s students don’t grow up to play in a symphony, the lessons they learn about connecting with themselves and with others can have far-reaching ripple effects in their communities.

While each elementary school in the Salt Lake City School District has a dedicated music education specialist, Wayne County only has one fine arts teacher — the local strings instructor, Shelar. In that role, she splits her time between music and visual art and doesn’t teach strings at all.

Festival Chair Ada Mae Crouse, who grew up in a musical family, said passing these opportunities on to the next generation — as well as making classical music more accessible to the public — is central to the workshop’s mission.

“We wanted to not just bring the music, but also bring people together with music.”

The workshop culminates in a concert where the students perform side-by-side with the professionals. The setlist featured the kids on seven songs, including classical mainstays like “Ode to Joy” and the “William Tell Overture.” The students even requested “How Far I’ll Go” from the Disney movie Moana and the workshop had it arranged especially for their skill levels.

In the community center lobby, 9-year-old violinists Seffie Fullerton and Bethany Wing ran through William Tell’s opening bars.

“I’m nervous because I get stage fright a lot, and my mom usually puts it on video,” Fullerton said, “and it gets me super nervous.”

Fullerton made a few attempts but still couldn’t quite land the melody’s progression — adding frustration to her nerves. Fortunately, she’s learned that the instrument she’s holding can help.

“When I'm sad and I play it — like, yesterday, I got super sad … so I played the violin — and it helped me. If I'm angry, I can play it, and it will make me calm.”

Violin students Bethany Wing, Seffie Fullerton and Emery Robinson (right to left) listen to their small group instructor during the strings workshop, June 15, 2024.
David Condos
/
KUER
Violin students Bethany Wing, Seffie Fullerton and Emery Robinson (right to left) listen to their small group instructor during the strings workshop, June 15, 2024.

Another of Shelar’s students from Lyman, 11-year-old Cru Peterson, felt a common mixture of excitement and nerves. Getting to sit next to a professional cellist, however, helped him remember why he was there.

“I just want to play cello as long as I can,” Peterson said. “I love it.”

As families crowded the community center’s main room for the performance, Keri Pace watched her daughter, Journee, in the violin section.

“It's amazing to see it all come together,” she said. “I mean, people that are as talented as you'll find anywhere in the world are here playing with them in Bicknell at a community center. It's amazing.”

This one workshop and concert may not be able to erase all the geographic barriers these students face. But it can help them feel less alone, Shelar said, and give them a chance to perform together, which is vital to helping them build confidence.

“For me, to see them in this setting where they get to take the stage and they get to be first chair of their section, and they get to lead the entire orchestra for starting the piece — that is a really big deal. … It brings tears to my eyes.”

So at least for a few hours in this community center, the string students of Wayne County got to feel what it’s like to be a real orchestra.

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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