An old violin has become a gift that keeps on giving for Howard Kennedy Elementary School music students and the Noblemen, a group of military retirees who volunteer at the school.
Since a Christmas Day story in The World-Herald about the Noblemen's adventure with a mysterious donated violin, people have given the school a gently used cello and two antique violins in good condition. At least two more violins and a trumpet have been promised. An Omaha Area Youth Orchestra leader and young musician visited Kennedy to play strings with the kids. And a teenage Youth Orchestra member is plotting ways to help the Kennedy kids and other young music students.
“Who knows how far a ripple goes?” said Air Force veteran Edward Medlin, a member of the volunteer group.
A dozen or more Noblemen greet children every Wednesday morning at Kennedy Elementary in north Omaha. Each year they also pool their resources and give something to meet a school need. This school year, Kennedy Principal Phyllis Brooks, known for pushing her students to learn music, asked for a violin. A third-grader desperately wanted to take a strings class normally reserved for fourth-graders, and there was no instrument for her.
The Noblemen purchased several violins and collected donations of a couple of more instruments. One was very old and appeared at first to be quite valuable.
Though it turned out to be worth little money, it led to a heartwarming adventure for the Noblemen, Kennedy strings teacher Mary Rasmussen and the students.
Their adventure moved several people to join in the fun.
By coincidence on Christmas Day, Omahan Meri Boyer was trying to decide what to do with a child-sized cello that her daughter used to play.
The family was about to move to New Jersey. The cello originally cost $1,300. Boyer was thinking about selling it. Then she read about the Noblemen's efforts to help Kennedy kids.
Boyer called Rasmussen. The teacher picked up the cello. Kennedy already had an instrument for its one student cellist — but it was full-sized, a little too big. An older student at another school wanted to play cello, but didn't have an instrument to use.
Now the boy at Kennedy can have a cello his size, if Rasmussen can talk him into playing the smaller one. And the older student can use the full-sized cello.
“It was perfect synchronicity,” Boyer said. “I truly believe that all kids should have access to learn music. There are so many studies that show that learning music turns the brain on in all sorts of ways.”
Retired Omaha Public Schools teacher Lorie Conrey was inspired to donate her late father's 100-year-old violin. She had new tuners put on the instrument and acquired a new bow so she could give the violin to Rasmussen for her students. It was the second time Conrey had had the fiddle refurbished.
The first was years ago, after she found it in her parents' South Omaha garage rafters while her father was in a nursing home and his mind was slipping. She had it repaired so he could play once again.
Conrey, who taught second-graders at Dundee Elementary School for 35 years, saved the violin after her father died. She brought it out again after reading about Rasmussen and the Kennedy strings effort. Conrey felt a kinship with a fellow educator who cares so much about her students.
In Fremont, Vicki Wehrmann-Sorensen still had the student violin on which her daughter, Anne, had begun to learn 22 years ago. Wehrmann-Sorensen planned to take the violin to Kennedy this week.
It's in good condition after being used briefly at the beginning of Anne Sorensen's music career. So far, the career includes an Arizona State University master's degree in violin performance, and traveling to perform across the United States and in Italy and Russia.
That's just the kind of experience that Principal Brooks tries to inspire her students to aspire to. They might not be looking that far ahead yet, but they're enjoying the instruments, the experience and the attention.
“We're happy,” 10-year-old Maijhe Wile said during a recent strings class, “because we got new instruments.”
For Rasmussen, the experience has been exciting. It's gratifying to learn how people appreciate music education. And it's intriguing to see what more might come of it, at Kennedy and beyond.
For example, the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra's Aviva Segall added Kennedy to her schedule of schools to visit with a young musician. Segall, who's the orchestra's music director and principal conductor, and a high school violinist from the group played with Kennedy students. They offered pointers to the beginners.
Segall said she and her young musicians are brainstorming about more ways to help younger musicians at Kennedy and elsewhere in metropolitan Omaha. She said a high school student in the orchestra had emailed her on Christmas Day after reading about the Noblemen, the old violin and the children.
“She was fired up, wondering what is it that Youth Orchestra members can do to help,” Segall said. “I want to empower that student thinking.”
It has all brought extra smiles to the normally festive Wednesday atmosphere in Kennedy's entryway, where the Noblemen line up in blue polo shirts to greet the arriving children.
“A lot of good things have happened,” said Ron Gaspard, a member of the group. “We just have to keep doing what we're doing, keeping it positive.”
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