How Resounding Harmony enlisted art students at an elementary school to help their classmates make beautiful music together
When Resounding Harmony was formed last year, its mission — to donate every penny of profit to a local charity — seemed like an easy one. There’s a lot of need out there, and finding worthy beneficiaries would be a snap.
Only it wasn’t.
"We knew we were going to do the North Texas Food Bank in the fall, but who should we give our money to in the spring?" recalls Dr. Timothy Seelig, the founding artistic director of the new mixed male/female chorus. Doing the most good with their contribution was a priority — but how to decide?
And then Seelig thought of Rogene Russell and the Fine Arts Chamber Players, which has a reputation "for doing the most for music for children with the least amount of money." Seelig had known Russell — an oboist with the Dallas Opera orchestra and the Fort Worth Symphony — for decades. Seelig called her to ask if she had any projects that needed help.
That’s how Resounding Harmony discovered Lowe Elementary School.
Although a new facility — it was built only three years ago — Lowe warehouses more than 800 underserved students, mostly Hispanic, grades K through 5. The entire school claims only one music teacher and one art teacher. If ever there was a need, it was here.
Russell discovered how deep a need when she brought a string quartet to an assembly, and offered to sign up for after-school instruction any students who were interested in learning to play the violin. She left with 147 names.
And no violins.
"Rogene made practice violins with cardboard and yard sticks so they could learn what frets were," Seelig says. Eventually, they found enough violins so that the 5th graders were able to share. But they still needed more.
While Seelig was at the school, he was escorted into the art classroom and was immediate struck by the creativity and style around him. "I knew it had to be some queen who did this," he says with a wink.
Enter Anthony Newlin. Newlin, a nine-year veteran of Texas schools, had arrived at Lowe last fall and quickly set up an after-school art club. Seelig proposed an idea: Would Newlin have his students decorate old, irreparable violins which Resounding Harmony could then auction off to buy new violins for the students?
The suggestion was sort of radical: One department (art) doing the work to raise money for another department (music). Still, Newlin jumped at it.
"When I first told them we were doing this, they were very concerned that we would be ruining the violins — some are music students as well. I had to explain, no, they are beyond their useful life," Newlin says.
But in fact, finding even cracked, 20-year-old fiddles in pawn shops and attics turned out to be a huge task — until Newlin suggested they contact the DISD’s storage facility for musical instruments.
"They took me into the bowels of this warehouse and gave me 12 unplayable violins" to add to the two Seelig was able to acquire. That’s when Newlin’s group stepped in.
"There was one more violin than there were students, but the little sister of one of them" chipped in, Newlin says. All 14 were decorated as a creative project for the kids.
"Since we only meet once a week, it took several weeks. We started out with the kids tracing the violin on a piece of paper and sketching out a rough draft. We discussed the colors and how to make it presentationally appealing," Newlin says.
The design was just an idea — Newlin encouraged the students to explore their creative processes: "I was able to step back and become more of a cheerleader. I think they surprised themselves a lot of times to take it from a traced sketch on a piece of paper and see the final product."
Some of the students were initially confused by the idea that their art would be auctioned off — some thought they would personally get the money from the sale. Instead, they have all been offered tickets to one of Resounding Harmony’s two concerts this weekend, and will get to see their art on display. (The ex of one of Resounding Harmony’s singers, a professional framer, volunteered his labor if the chorus paid for materials.)
Seelig hopes the auctioned fiddles will raise enough money to buy several dozen violins for Lowe Elementary (a student violin costs only about $100). But he’s most gratified at how art and music were incorporated into the lives of inner city youth.
"These kids will never forget painting a violin and seeing it framed and sold," he says. And hopefully that will give them a lifetime love of all arts.
MUSIC WITH A MISSION
"We Are," Resounding Harmony’s charity "musical journey" from childhood to
adulthood, takes place at Caruth Auditorium on the SMU campus,
May 30 and 31 at 7:30 p.m. $25. Resoundingharmony.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 29, 2009.
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