With a bow in one hand and a violin in the other, 14 fifth- and sixth-graders dressed in black played “Ode to Joy” and “Carol of the Bells.”
They performed Tuesday night at Bellevue Elementary School, alongside Victor Vasquez, a Santa Rosa Junior College student who spent about $5,000 of his own money to pay for their instruments and supplies. Vasquez, 22, has volunteered to teach violin to the students after school once a week since August.
“Working with the kids has been just incredible. They’ve been so focus. They really, really want to learn,” he said. “The smiles when they get something right or figure out a concept is just so rewarding.”
Bellevue Elementary has about 400 students. It is one of four elementary schools in the Bellevue Union School District, where, like many other area school districts, funding is a challenge, particularly for arts programs.
However, Vasquez voiced hope that by kick-starting a violin program, long-term funding for the kids will come eventually.
Sixth-grader Juan Nuñez had never played an instrument before joining the after-school program. His grandmother encouraged him to play the violin as a nod to his Mexican heritage. Nuñez pointed to festive events where harp and violin music accompany a tap dance.
“It was a dream instrument; I’ve always wanted to play,” said Nuñez, 12. “It feels great. I’m happy for this opportunity.”
Jair Contreras, 10, plays ukulele and the recorder. But the fifth-grader was excited to learn violin — a key instrument in mariachi music, a big part of her family’s Mexican culture.
“I like it especially because it teaches you responsibility and discipline,” Contreras said.
After hearing Vasquez perform “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, fifth-grader Camila Jacobo said she hopes to be skilled enough to play it one day, too.
“At the beginning when I started it was really hard,” Jacobo, 10, said about learning the violin.
Vasquez got involved at Bellevue Elementary about a year ago, through a friend at the district office. They initially discussed a one-day event where he'd present Renaissance history through music and storytelling but scrapped the idea for the violin program.
“One thing led to another and they asked, ‘What else can you do?'” he said.
Vasquez ran a 10-week trial of the program last spring, and it was a success with students and parents, he said.
“The kids have really responded to his style,” Principal Nina Craig said. “He has a way of playing with them, and he knows instinctively where to help or when to give space.”
In addition to purchasing instruments, Vasquez also bought white boards, markers, stands and other materials for the kids with money from his family and a music scholarship he earned at the junior college.
Students do pay $20 a month to rent the instruments, and if they stick with the program they get to keep the violins. Having some “skin in the game” to earn their violins helps keep the kids focused, Vasquez said.
“We don’t make a profit off those rents, it’s purely to make sure we don’t operate at absolute loss,” said Vasquez, who plans to transfer to Sonoma State University in fall 2019 and double major in musical performance and education.