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Fifth-graders will soon be coming out of Sandburg Elementary fiddling happy tunes thanks to a major instrument donation making it possible for strings to be part of the fifth-grade curriculum.

The VH1 Save the Music Foundation and Madison-based Musicnotes.com teamed up to provide Sandburg with 36 new instruments, worth about $35,000, to fill gaps in an aged instrument inventory and to provide enough instruments to suit the needs of the children.

The foundation has already been working with the Madison School District to create 12 keyboard labs in various elementary schools.

“We are really fortunate that we began a relationship with VH1 Save the Music six years ago,” said Laurie Fellenz, fine arts coordinator for the district.

“We’re trying to move to a model that all of our children have equity and access to arts education and our strings program,” Fellenz said. “There were only small numbers of kids getting access.”

Sandburg will be the first of five Madison schools planning to make the strings program part of the fifth-grade curriculum. The other schools have not yet been named.

Required music courses with strings are uncommon for elementary schools, mostly because of the expense, said Shelley Hooper, program director for the Wisconsin School Music Association, who taught music for 14 years.

Though strings are costly, teaching them to younger children is great for their musical growth.

“In some ways it’s an ideal situation, it’s almost like a dream come true,” Hooper said. “I can’t think of a music teacher who would think it’s a bad idea. There’s so much ear training from playing strings ... It could be challenging for teachers, it depends on scheduling, but in terms of the benefits for the kids, it would be awesome.”

Instruments were presented to the students in a Thursday morning assembly, wrapped in bright green paper that a select group — fittingly clad in brightly colored “Save the Music” T-shirts — unwrapped in front of the rest of the student body.

Representatives from Save the Music, the school district and Musicnotes were in attendance, and a string quartet from Madison East High School performed for the exuberant audience.

Being chosen as the first school in the district to be awarded new string instruments came, in part, because of Sandburg’s Title I status, but also because there has been a resurgence of student interest in strings, said Chiho Feindler, grantee and compliance director for Save the Music.

Title I is a federal program that provides funding to schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families.

Reintroducing the strings

Rekindling an interest in learning to play string instruments was prompted by a new approach to the class.

“Last year we had basically all of our fifth-grade teachers encourage (students) to participate by learning strings in class along with the students,” said Sandburg Principal Brett Wilfrid. “It was a nice opportunity for the teachers to show the students the business of continuous learning and development. Some teachers already had some skill, but had relatively little, so they could be learners alongside the students.”

The hope is that further donations can be made to ensure that students districtwide can benefit in strings education.

“Our plan probably will be to target the more need-based schools so we can complete our giving and say in the Madison Metropolitan School District every single child in its schools — regardless of socioeconomic status or where they go to school — has access to instrumental music education,” Feindler said.

Further donations can be given to another district school every year as needed so long as the district is able to provide certified teachers to teach the courses.

What makes this first donation particularly special is that the majority of the support, save for the foundation behind it, is local.

Musicnotes — the world’s largest digital sheet music publisher and retailer — provided the funds, and the violins, violas and cellos were purchased at local instrument retailer Heid Music.

The monetary donation from Musicnotes willnot only benefit Madison, but will also be distributed to other schools being supported by the foundation nationwide, Feindler said.

It was decided this year that Musicnotes was going to “take an active role in supporting music education” and find an outlet for philanthropic contributions, according to Kathleen Marsh, CEO, vice chairwoman and co-founder of Musicnotes.

“If children aren’t learning how to play or they don’t have access to instruments or access to good education, we don’t exist,” Marsh said. “This is our way of giving back to our community.”

Keeping philanthropic endeavors local is also important to Save the Music, which strives to give back not only to the schools, but to the local music economy as well.

“We believe that generating the local musical economy is very important,” Feindler said. “So the local company is able to give to us to purchase instruments from the local music store to give to the local school.” But, just six weeks ago, the relationship between Save the Music and Musicnotes started out as nothing more than a happy coincidence.

The company reached out to the foundation to make a donation and heard about Madison being one of the targeted places, so it seemed like the perfect fit, said Alison Weber, senior communications and brand specialist for Musicnotes.

“We’re starting in Madison — Madison is our home,” Marsh said. “We have 60+ employees who are working and raising families and their children are taking music lessons. We’re taking advantage of a wonderful community of music makers. Madison is very supportive of the arts and of music and we felt it was appropriate for us to start here.”

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Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.