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Held together by the strings

By Amy Yee Special to The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2001


Marconi Hernandez isn't so different from most urban teenagers. The ninth-grader at Mount Pleasant High School in Rhode Island plays basketball and football after school, hangs out with friends, and listens to pop music. But in addition to a roster of hip- hop stars, Marconi is fond of Bach, who composed Minuet 1, his favorite piece of classical music.

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Marconi and kids like him are learning about Bach and Beethoven with help from Community MusicWorks, a nonprofit organization in the heart of Providence. It started up four years ago when Sebastian Ruth, who had just graduated from Brown University here, took it upon himself to teach 15 students on a single hand-me-down violin.

Today, kids, parents, and educators all sing the praises of Community MusicWorks, which offers free lessons in violin and cello to 50 students ages 7 to 14, workshops featuring renowned musicians, performance parties and recitals, and family trips to professional concerts.

Hidden Bach fans

Mr. Ruth, a violinist and the company's executive director, had harbored ideas about music and social change since high school. But his vision began to take shape when he taught violin to a 10 year-old southeast Asian Hmong boy during his senior year at Brown. Ruth recognized there was interest in classical music in parts of the city that Bach doesn't always reach.

"I thought, 'If only I could bring in a string quartet and teach even more students,' " he says.

When he earned his degree in music and education, Ruth won a $10,000 fellowship from the Swearer Center, his alma mater's public-service center. He decided to turn his attention to South Providence, Olneyville, Elmwood, and West End, four lower-income neighborhoods of Providence where predominantly African-American, Hispanic, and southeast Asian immigrant populations face high dropout and substance abuse rates.

Ruth formed a string quartet in residence that today also includes 20-somethings Minna Choi, Ben Rous, and Heath Marlo. Each one teaches children in groups of two or three at community centers after school.

Community MusicWorks operates on a shoestring budget that relies on state grants and some private contributions. Lessons are offered to children from the four neighborhoods on a first-come, first- serve basis. Ruth tries to balance genders and gives preference to siblings because of his belief that it's ultimately a family- and community-building project.

On a Monday afternoon at West End Community Center, fourth-graders Fraynelis Cabrera and Shadelys Pena learn a song called "May Day" with Ms. Choi, a violinist who graduated from Brown in 1996 and now serves as Community MusicWork's program coordinator. They practice notes while Choi patiently guides fingers and bows, occasionally drawing out confident notes on her own violin for the students to hear.

Fraynelis says "Deck the Halls" is one of her favorite songs to play. She remembers a trip to see a concert of the Boston Philharmonic, where Ruth plays viola.

"It's good to see them playing music; the people move when they're playing, like they're dancing," she says. "And you get to imagine like you're playing in it, too."