CAIRO — Rossana Cauti calls the students to attention.
“First of all, I need someone to tell me the names of these notes here,” the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Music graduate assistant from Italy tells the class of third- through fifth-grade violin students practicing after school at Cairo Elementary.
In unison, about 14 students rattled off the names of the notes they’d studied in recent weeks in the first line of “Lightly Row.”
“Stop, stop,” she tells them. “Hold on. Do you remember this part of the song?
“Yes,” they say, in unison, captivated by the young woman with a warm smile and velvety accent standing before them, who dedicates her Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to teaching them to play the violin and knows each one by name.
The program, Cairo Violins, only began a short time ago, in the second week of February, but it’s easy to see the children already are hooked.
Business executive Harold Jones is the founder of the after-school program funded by a private grant and bolstered by Cauti’s commitment.
Jones, himself a violinist, said he was inspired to create the program by el Sistema, a decades-old, government funded social program in Venezuela intended to help young people rise above poverty by teaching them classical music. The pinnacle of that program is the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, a world-class orchestra of considerable renown composed of young musicians.
“We can mirror that here,” Jones said.
Standing in front of the classroom, Cauti asks one of the students to lead off the group. “Ready, Steady, Go,” the student announces, and all of the others raise bows to their violins. They hit most of the right notes, but there are a few rough patches.
After an initial run-through, they discuss quarter notes and whole notes, and how one is filled in and the other left open. Then, she asks the students to sing the notes, and they hold longer on the whole notes as she taught them.
“That was fantastic,” says Cauti, an accomplished violist who performs in the Paducah Symphony. “Can we try to play this?” She tells them to watch out for the tricky part, where they have to change strings. “Make sure the second finger is on the string ready.” This time, they play the song a bit smoother. “This was better already,” she says.
“I messed up on this row,” one of the boys in the group tells her, offering his own self-critique. “If you make a little mistake, just don’t give up,” she tells him, in response.
Jones said that in the fall, he hopes to add violas and cellos to the mix, and other string instruments into future years as the program grows. “In a couple of years, we’ll have a full-blown orchestra made up of these kids that are primarily living in the projects," he said.
Jones grew up in Detroit, and was last living in Atlanta before making his home in Cairo. But he has a deep connection to the town through his family, as his parents and grandparents are from Cairo. Jones moved to Cairo after meeting his now-wife during one of his visits; she is the assistant principal at Paducah Middle School. He is an unabashed cheerleader for the town, its people — and the potential of both.
As Cauti walks the children through various drills and music games, Jacqueline Fayne stands by the door using her cell phone to film her two sons practicing. The boys are deep in concentration, and mom has a huge smile on her face as she watches them struggle through a hard part, and then light up when they figure it out.
When her boys came to her recently asking if they could have her blessing to sign up for Cairo Violins, Fayne said she was more than happy to sign the permission slip.
A few weeks in, a few of the students who signed up have already left the group, deciding it wasn’t for them. But her children, 8-year-old Christian Durham and 10-year-old Brandon Moore, who celebrates a birthday today, show no signs of quitting, mom said.
In fact, it’s just the opposite for them. She said they are both eager to get their own violins so that they can practice at home. “I tell my kids, to be able to play the violin, that is something that is rare,” she said.
Fayne said a lot of students in Cairo believe excelling athletically is the only way to rise above their circumstance and earn their way through college. But Fayne said not all children are meant to be athletes, and not all who play are good enough to participate at the collegiate level. She said it’s important to her that her children learn at a young age that there are other skills, in addition to or besides sports, they can learn to set them apart.
“I told them this will give them an edge,” she said. “If you know how to play a live instrument like that, you know how many scholarships you can get?
The violins the children are using are being leased from Paducah Supply. The program, both the violins and Cauti’s time as an instructor, is funded by a grant from the Oris B. Hastings Charitable Foundation, which has underwritten programs within Cairo’s school district for years, Jones said.
The value of the program goes beyond learning to master the violin, he said. Learning a musical instrument teaches cognitive thinking and spatial abilities; playing in a group teaches team building.
“They think better and clearer,” he said. “And those are the things we’re trying to develop in our youth.” In the fall, Jones said he wants to add a math tutoring component to the program.
“These things go hand-in-hand,” he said, noting that Einstein, the internationally celebrated physicist who radically changed science and the way the world is viewed, also played the violin.
"The Einstein Project” is what he plans to call it.
Fayne said she’s grateful for the program, and the ability to watch her sons grow more confident as they develop musically. Christian, her youngest, who is in the third grade, said he likes learning the violin because “it gives me something to do after school and it’s something fun I like to do.”
Christian said that he might like to be part of a professional orchestra in the future, but maybe not full time. “My dream is to be a police officer,” he said. “And if that doesn’t go how I want it to, I’ll just be a singer.” Mom said it’s up to her sons to decide what they want to do with their lives … she’s just glad they feel empowered to dream about all the possibilities that life holds for them.