Hernando Sun Community Reporter
Chocachatti Elementary School is a Center for the Arts which utilizes the Micro Society concept. The Micro program occurs three days a week for one hour in the afternoon. During this time every child from kindergarten through fifth grade goes to a “job.” They earn “money” that can be spent on various items or activities within the school and even have a “bank” in which to deposit their money.
Micro provides children with learning experiences that will enable them to become productive members of society and may even transfer to the “real” world of work. For one hour, every teacher takes on a new role, teaching anything from gardening to cooking. In addition, the school contracts with people to teach some of the skills that the teachers on staff do not have.
One of these “jobs” that some of the children are involved in is playing in a string orchestra conducted by cellist John St. John assisted by violinist Jonathan Widger. The students not only have the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument but need to figure out how to turn the orchestra into a “business” so they can earn money to shop.
“The orchestra makes money by going into one of the school’s “shopping malls” and playing for the other children who pay to hear the orchestra play,” states St. John.
Most of the children who start in the orchestra have absolutely no idea what a violin or cello is, let alone how to play one. Several have gone on to play with the Hernando Youth Orchestra, which St. John founded in 2007.
Teaching children as young as seven years old a skill such as this can be a challenge, but it is also very rewarding for Widger and St. John.
“They have to learn how to read sheet music, so it’s really a steep learning curve. They have to know the letter names of the notes, and they have to know where the notes are on the violin or cello. They have to learn how to hold the violin on their shoulder and also the use of the bow,” Widger comments.
“We get them to see the notes and be able to play them. They have to look at the music, know how long that note lasts. They need to know what direction the bow goes. They see the note and relate it to where their fingers go and what it’s supposed to sound like,” remarks St. John.
“They’re very receptive. They’re like resplendent sponges,” Widger adds.
Ms. Silvina Doherty, Micro Society Coordinator, praises their work with the children.
“It’s amazing what these two gentlemen have a natural talent to do. They’ll take students who have never touched an instrument and they’ll take students who have been playing for three years. They put them together and they have an orchestra. They find talent in children who didn’t even know they had any talent at all.”
St. John and Widger, in turn, are proud of their students.
“We have one seven-year-old child who’s a prodigy and he had never touched an instrument before. When we first start off with “newbies” we have the children who have been with us for a while teaching the other kids. We have the largest string section within a sixty-mile radius of this school,” states St. John.
The children enjoy their three-day-a-week Micro and are justly proud of themselves. Many take their instruments home with them and practice several hours a week outside of school.
Eight-year-old violinist Aalyah Miller has been playing in the orchestra for almost two years.
“What I like best about the violin is how the music is higher than other instruments. I like being in the orchestra because I get to learn how to play music.”
Fourth-grader Milo Manuele has been playing the cello since he was in second grade and is the lead cellist, a position he seems to relish.
“I tell the kids what to do with their positioning. I tell them what music they’re on, count them in and tell them when to play or stop. I play my instrument a lot. I play it for my family and to my nine pets.”
Fourth-grader Emory Strachan has been playing the violin for two years. He has a very important role in the orchestra, that of Concert Master.
“I take lead if the conductor isn’t here. The hardest thing about being a Concert Master is that everyone has to follow you. The best thing is that you’re the secondary boss.”
On March 10, the students had the opportunity to exhibit their skills in front of their parents and the Hernando County School Board. They performed several songs prior to the start of the school board meeting and were met with enthusiastic applause.
It’s unlikely that all these children will go on to be professional musicians, but they have had an invaluable opportunity to become accomplished in a skill that very few people master. They have learned an appreciation of music and have had the chance to develop confidence, discipline, and leadership – skills that are invaluable in the “real” world.
Members of the Chocachatti String Orchestra
Emory Strachan - Concert Master
Milo Manuel - Lead cellist