Community children, ASU students flourish in School of Music's String Project classes

Donna Janowski is in her fourth year of teaching in the popular ASU String Project program for Phoenix area children. Helping her is master teacher (right) Holly Schrade, who teaches music in the Peoria Unified School District.

Photo by Tim Trumble Photography

During a recent rehearsal for the String Project in the ASU School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Donna Janowski asks the 18 children sitting in front of her holding their violins and cellos whether they begin the next measure of the music they are playing up bow or down bow. “Up,” they chorus.

Their enthusiasm and Janowski's ease instructing a room full of elementary school-aged children on a Saturday morning on properly playing the violin underscores the vision of The National String Project programs. Founded 13 years ago at a handful of universities, the String Project was created to address the nationwide shortage of string teachers in public schools and to increase the number of children who play instruments such as the violin, viola, double bass and cello.

This is Janowski’s fourth year teaching in the ASU String Project, the only project site in Arizona and one of the National String Project’s largest with 200 children between fourth and eighth grades enrolled.

An undergraduate music education major, Janowski began playing the violin in third grade as part of her suburban Chicago school’s string program. She has known since high school that she wanted to be a public school music teacher. But she was surprised when she arrived on campus her freshman year to discover that she could jump-start her actual teaching experience through the ASU String Project.

Some 60 classes later, Janowski says she is more than ready to begin her student teaching experience next year and, more importantly, handle her first teaching position after she graduates in May 2014. Although she had stepped in and led her high school orchestra through rehearsals, taught in a two-week summer music camp and given private lessons, she had never faced a classroom of children with varying degrees of playing ability, backgrounds and interests.

“I’ve learned how to do lesson plans and what works with kids and what doesn’t,” Janowski says. “Having this experience definitely gives me a leg up when it comes to applying for jobs.”

Janowski is one of 23 students teaching in the ASU String Project that includes modestly priced Saturday classes and private lessons. Although the students are paid a modest stipend, the real value for the future educators is the time some of them clock actually teaching a classroom of children.

Margaret Schmidt, associate professor of music education, started the ASU String Project in 2002. She knew the program would provide music education students with real-world experience before they were required to student teach. Schmidt also knew that the program would give Phoenix area families affordable lessons for their children to either supplement the instruction they were receiving in their public school music programs or, for some, be lessons they might otherwise not have. The 10-class sessions offered in the fall and spring cost $35. Private lessons (ten 30-minute sessions) also are available through the program for all ages at $75 a semester, less than half of what private lessons usually cost. Scholarships are available for classes or lessons to families who demonstrate need. “Money is never a reason a child can’t participate,” Schmidt says.

In addition to students who teach the Saturday morning beginning, fiddling and advanced classes, Schmidt also hires two master string teachers from area public schools who work with her in guiding the novice teachers. The three meet with the student teachers an hour before ASU String Project classes begin on Saturday to review lesson plans, give feedback and guidance.

“Teaching a class of 18 children is different than teaching one child in a private lesson, which is the experience that most of them have had,” Schmidt says. “One of the most important teaching experiences they can have is when they see that something that is simple to them can be very confusing for a child and they have to problem solve and figure out how they can help this child figure it out without losing control of the rest of the class.”

For freshman music education major Ali Smurawa it has been as simple as understanding how critical it is to have her students’ music stapled together in the order in which they will play it for the upcoming concert, and as complex as figuring out how to pace class instruction so that she does not leave some students behind or bore others. Smurawa co-teaches the beginning classes with Janowski. Holly Schrade, a veteran music teacher and string specialist in the Peoria Unified School District, is one of the two master teachers in addition to Linda Levy with the Gilbert Public Schools, who steps in and guides them if they need help. “It’s comforting to know if I’m teaching and I don’t know what to do that they’ll jump in and help me,” Smurawa says.

There are currently 36 String Project programs in colleges and universities across the country, according to Robert Jesselson, the executive director of the National String Project Consortium. Jesselson credits ASU and Schmidt with nurturing a program that passes on to the next generation the joy of teaching music. For some ASU music majors, it is the kind of hands-on experience that inspires them to go into teaching.

Although ASU School of Music alumnus James Hutchins knew he wanted to teach since he was in high school, it was not until he taught in the ASU String Project that he settled on music, he said. Hutchins graduated in May 2012 and is a first year music teacher in the Washington Elementary School District, a job he says his four-year experience with the ASU String Project helped him land.

For more information about the ASU String Project visit or call 480.965.8277. Registration for the String Project spring term is underway with classes beginning Feb. 23 at ASU Gammage on the ASU Tempe campus.

Public Contact: 
Susan Felt
Coordinator Communications and Marketing

Media Contact:
Susan Felt
Coordinator of Communication and Marketing