The fiddle class at Shabazz High School takes the traditional approach by having students learn to play the violin by ear.
Many of the students at the alternative school didn’t learn to play the violin at their previous schools. Teacher Gene Delcourt didn’t learn to play until he was 50.
Funding for the class is not traditional. The students use violins that have been donated or purchased inexpensively from antique stores. A number of them have come from the estate of William “Jack” Fry, a physics professor at UW-Madison who spent four decades in violin acoustical research.
Delcourt plays outside Williamson Street Co-op locations and the Dane County Farmers Market, and the donations he earns go toward the bows and cases.
So it seemed a natural fit for Delcourt to sign up for the annual Make Music Madison event last Wednesday. The free, outdoor day of music, which is held on the summer solstice, features a full spectrum of performers at various venues such as front porches, community centers, coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses.
Delcourt said the event is more enjoyable than showing up somewhere to play.
“Here, people come because they want to hear you,” he said.
Delcourt and his students have been performing at Make Music Madison since it started in 2013. Each year, the group size varies but this year it consisted of Delcourt and a 2016 Shabazz graduate, Jill Strader. They played at five venues, and except for the money used to buy a tuner needed along the way, Delcourt said he wanted Strader to keep the donations.
Other than twice-a-year talent shows at Shabazz, this event is about the only other time the fiddle students perform before an audience.
Strader, who regularly plays for donations at a couple of places in town, also has been volunteering to work with students in the class.
“I like the school and a lot of my friends are still there,” said Strader, who also is holding down a couple of part-time jobs.
Delcourt taught social studies for 18 years at Shabazz before retiring at the end of the 2015-16 school year. For the last seven years, he has taught the elective fiddle class. Last year, he taught with Peter Fee, a science teacher who had the students look at how playing the violin uses the brain. Next year, Delcourt will teach with Jeff Evert, a resource teacher. While most of the students play the violin, occasionally a student will choose to accompany with a guitar or piano.
Delcourt said the fact that many of the fiddle students didn’t have experience playing made it less intimidating for him to start teaching not long after he learned.
“I was already three years ahead of them,” he said.
Carter Newbury, who will be a sophomore next fall, took the class for two quarters and plans to take it again next year. Newbury had taken orchestra before coming to the Shabazz.
“I kind of like Gene’s way better, and I do think it helped me more,” Newbury said. “Gene’s a really good teacher, and I really enjoyed the fiddle class.”