In 2009 Robert Arsenault, then chair of the Performing Arts Dept. at Mt Hope High School, was invited to attend a Symposium for Music in Schools at Yale University. The main theme of the Symposium was “Will El Sistema work in the United States Public Schools?” El Sistema is an organization in Venezuela, committed to social development through an innovative and hope-instilling music education program, distinguished by its excellence and for having a positive impact on the communities where it is implemented.
He spoke with a former band student, Bethany Sousa, who was studying music education at the University of Rhode Island. She offered to give lessons to students during the summer. The response was overwhelming and 33 children began violin lessons. This was the first time since the 1950s that students had the opportunity to play a string instrument in the Bristol or Warren public schools.
The next step was to develop an after school program which was affordable and accessible to all students. Working with the superintendent and an elementary music teacher, who had taught st
rings in a previous school district, a schedule was created to ensure after school lessons would be available at each of the elementary schools. Further recruitment included asking for guidance counselors, teachers and principals to recommend students who would benefit from learning to play a string instrument. We wanted to keep the cost low and provide free lessons and instruments for those who qualified for free/reduced lunch. More string teachers were recruited and the program expanded to include adult instruction.
A board was formed, and the Community String Project was incorporated and granted 501(c).3 status Members of the initial board of directors met in the Rogers Free Library and include Susan Winterbottom-Shadday (Music Teacher), Bernie Hicks (Parent), Bruce Carlsten (Adult Musician), Helen Dias (Bank Newport), MaryKae Wright (Treasurer), Philhomena Barboza (Parent) Bethany Sousa, (Instructor) and Robert Arsenault.
Within five years, the Community String Project grew to service 100 students, (38%) receiving free instruction and paying a minimal instrument usage fee. The 35 adult musicians come from all of RI and Southeast Massachusetts to improve their own technique and experience the joy of playing with others. The adult ensembles continue to provide lesson and performance opportunities to youth students upon graduation. The Community String Project was built upon the support of early contributors who believed in our mission. We are thankful to the Billy Andrade/Brad Faxon Foundation, Roger Williams University, Town of Bristol, Bank Newport, the Carter Foundation, Classics for Kids and many individual donors.