Friends in Music offers extra practice and role models at Leestown
Making friends and making music is a great combination at Leestown Middle School, according to eighth-grader Jazmyne Fee, a violinist in her second year with Lexington’s after-school program called Friends in Music. “Not only do you meet new people, it’s a really fun experience,” she said. “It’s a community within the school, and you also learn a lot. The program has definitely helped me improve.”
One recent Wednesday afternoon, Leestown students and their high school mentors clustered in pairs or small groups in several classrooms with their violins, violas, cellos, basses, sheet music, and optimism. The advanced CKYO musicians shared advice during the hands-on lesson as the younger students soaked up the additional practice time.
“The kids know they get extra attention, so they treasure and value that,” said Nathan Wilson, the orchestra teacher at Leestown. “They get to know the high school mentor, and that’s valuable. They might hear the same thing (that I tell them in class), but it’ll have a totally different impact. It reinforces everything I try to do during the day all week.”
Friends in Music Director Shawna Howard coordinates about 100 students at Leestown and Bryan Station Middle and some three dozen mentors from the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras (CKYO). With the growth in participation this year, she recruited extra helpers from Lafayette and Paul Laurence Dunbar high schools. Crawford Middle’s orchestra teacher, Annette DiToma, also pitches in, along with a doctoral student from the University of Kentucky, Jerram John.
Early this fall, Howard coached the mentors on basic teaching techniques, expectations, and professionalism. The initial sessions at each school featured community-building activities and silly games, which helped her to match mentors with students in terms of playing level and personality. Each week’s gathering still begins with an icebreaker before the musicians fan out for lessons. The ratio at Leestown is mostly 1:2 or 1:4, though Howard did assign three mentors to one larger group of beginners.
“The students gain so much because they’re practicing outside the school day, and they’re motivated because there’s someone they want to perform well for. It’s someone they can look up to and relate to,” Howard said. “They get to know these high schoolers and see they’re doing well in school. They’re always very impressed, and it motivates them to do well in other things besides music.”
The exchange also benefits the mentors like Dunbar’s Joey Ilagan, a junior who plays cello. “I really like teaching other people. Breaking down all the steps of playing allows me to see what I need to improve on, so it’s a lot of great practice for me, too,” he said.
The youngsters’ progress is on display with recitals in November and April, when they perform solo or in small ensembles for their peers and families. “The students are super nervous but always surprised at how well they do,” Howard said. The program then concludes in May when Friends in Music students and mentors perform side by side with CKYO at the Singletary Center, which “creates a unique experience for middle schoolers with strings and winds and brass playing together.”
Did you know? Another component of Friends in Music is private instrument lessons from a professional music educator, and the program offers lesson scholarships to students who qualify for free/reduced lunch.