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Kids getting caught up in strings

Leah Gowers heads up the new Smart Strings beginning orchestra program.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Leah Gowers heads up the new Smart Strings beginning orchestra program.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Leah Gowers sets up a pre-orchestra program for grade school students.

As a kid, Leah Gowers never thought she’d become a teacher.

In fact, seeing how much homework her English teacher mom had to grade at the end of the day, Gowers vowed not to follow in those footsteps.

Then in college, the violinist and viola player picked up some private lesson overflow from a former instructor and discovered how much she enjoyed students and their budding connection to music. Before she knew it, she’d made a segue from performance to a musical education degree.

“It’s kind of funny, the before and after,” she said.

Having now taught string instruments and orchestra for 15 years both privately and in the Central Kitsap School District, Gowers has expanded her efforts at home on Bainbridge with the “Smart Strings” beginning orchestra program for grades four through six, which will start Sept. 24 at Woodward Middle School.

Gowers’ own childhood memories inform her instruction. Looking at a newspaper clipping with a picture of her first fourth-grade orchestra concert reminds her that “my teacher wasn’t so great.”

She felt she lagged behind everyone else in the class because they were learning to play strings by the Suzuki method. The fact was, she wasn’t behind; she’d just picked up sight reading a different way, by singing in the church choir with her mother.

The idea that children learn music in different ways and at different paces stuck with her. Strong readers tend to pick up sight reading more quickly, while others need extra help and time to process music’s visual representation.

Different instruments also work for different kids, so at the beginning of the year, Gowers gives students the opportunity to try many different instruments.

Gowers’ husband, Todd, started off playing clarinet. But having grown to his full height of six-foot-four by the time he was 14, he gravitated toward a larger instrument with a deeper sound, the bass.

Some kids hate having things pressing against their lips – a clear indication that they’re better suited to strings than horns. Others can’t seem to grasp how much pressure to use with a string instrument of any sort. Brass or reeds might be their instrument of choice.

“There are certain kids who make a horrible screech with the violin, and they pick up a trumpet, and you’re like, wow,” Gowers said.

Gowers also encounters parental baggage, like the mom who opined that her daughter would be more successful with the clarinet than the violin.

When the teacher probed, she learned that the mother had herself struggled with the violin as a child and thought that since the clarinet was easier for her to learn, it would be easier for her daughter. Gowers pointed out that what worked for the parent might not work for the child.

Gowers has become a good judge of students who possess a true spark, but she says at this stage of a young musician’s development, that’s not necessarily the most important thing. Come January or February, a gifted student who doesn’t practice will stop coasting and fall behind.

“At some point, they learn that talent isn’t everything,” she said.

Gowers thought about starting a string orchestra program when she moved to the island three years ago. While she explored the idea of teaching through the Bainbridge Island School District, she hit a wall on discovering that funds didn’t exist to cover an orchestra program.

But late this summer, the idea surfaced again in a revised format. She decided to scale back her CK teaching, pick up more private lessons locally and try to find an avenue for building an orchestra class that dovetailed with the BISD even if it wouldn’t actually be a part of it.

“Really, to get going, there needed to be some sort of private offering first,” she said.

Through local contacts she met Norm Johnson who, with his non-profit organization Music Community Resources, helped Gowers coordinate publicity and the space rental at Woodward.

Having pulled the class offering together quickly – she only began organizing in August – Gowers views this year as a pilot. Her hope is to expand her offering to include second-year, middle school and high school classes and taking on another teacher to help run the program the program.

Despite tight school funding, Gowers hasn’t given up on one day forming an orchestra program with the BISD, perhaps through a combination of public funding, grants and private backers.

In the meantime, she’ll be happy if just a few students show up at Woodward on Monday morning. Because it’ll be a start.

“I’m a good teacher, so it’s something I can give to the community,” she said.

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Plucky kids

The Smart Strings beginning orchestra program for grades four to six, led by instructor Leah Gowers, meets Monday through Friday 7 to 7:30 a.m. starting Sept. 24 at Woodward Middle School. For pricing and information, contact Gowers at 780-3952 or leahgowers@wwdb.org. Or see www.musiccommunityresources.com/smartstrings.html.

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