When the school bell rings on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, most students pile on the bus or wait for their parents to pick them up.
But for a handful of 4th through 6th grade students at Catalayah Elementary School, class is still in session.
Following a 10 minute break for after school snacks, music teacher Steve Janke begins teaching VAST, a one-of-kind after school program teaching students to play violin.
“The technique to play a violin is a technical marvel,” Janke said. “For people to accomplish the skill level for it to be played correctly and performed properly … that’s hard.”
Getting a violin to sound like anything other than a dinosaur screech takes incredible precision in finger placement, bow grip, wrist movement, bow pressure and even posture.
“The technically difficulties are — I don’t want to say enormous — but certainly more so than playing a saxophone or a trumpet or a clarinet,” Janke said.
VAST is an acronym for Violins Are String Technology. The program is designed to help children not only understand the complex technology, but master it.
At the start of last Tuesday’s session with the advanced group, Janke walked around the room, tuning instruments and correcting bow grip.
“The more you relax with these instruments the better you’ll play,” Janke said, encouraging the students to loosen their grips.
Reading along with the students’ sheet music, Janke helped students keep track of when to play an up or down-bow, when to play what notes and how to count the rests.
Even in the advanced class, students had to be reminded to sit up straight and hold their bows correctly, to ensure that the instrument produced music instead of velociraptor cries.
Whenever Janke gave an instruction, he’d follow it up with a “Yes? Yes?” to which the students responded “Yes. Yes.”
The most advanced students in the group played a couple of tunes, ‘French Folk Song’ and ‘Long, Long Ago’ from memory, both refining their own skills, and giving the newer students in the class somewhere to aspire.
“Music is an avenue to allow kids to express themselves, to be creative,” Janke said. “Music is the greatest medium for the expression of human emotion.”
Janke pulled out a handout which he keeps in the classroom which describes how music is simultaneously scientific, mathematical, historical, a foreign language, a physical education and, above all, art.
Speaking on a personal level, outside of his capacity as a teacher, Janke said, “Music is a gift from God. I guarantee it is.”
Madi Smith and Shealyn Garen, who have both been practicing violin for a little over two weeks, were put into the advanced class due to a lack of space in the beginning class, but they are picking up the material quickly.
Smith said that being able to play an instrument as complex as the violin, “It’s really encouraging for me. It makes me feel like I can do anything.”
Garen said that she enjoys the VAST program because it gives her the opportunity to learn something new and hang out with friends at the same time.
Monica Hagert has been practicing violin for 2 years, and plans to keep playing for the foreseeable future.
Hagert said that playing the violin is stress relief. “You get into it and it just takes your mind off of other stuff,” she said.
Put simply, Garen said, “It’s fun.”
Janke encouraged the students to practice on their own at home, where they can really dig into the music without the concern of prying eyes.
“I’m so proud of you all,” Janke said at the end of the practice. “You really did wonderful.”
The idea for VAST came from the school’s first violin donation, a gift from a fellow Catalayah teacher. The violin was found, stuffed in a closet and in bad shape.
Janke took it to a music store, where he learned the violin and bow combined, made in the former Czechoslovakia, were worth $6,000.
“To play this violin is unbelievable, and the sound of it … I just wish I had the skill level to actually do it justice.” Janke said, picking the bow up out of its case and demonstrating the basics. “I hardly ever get to play this violin because I’m doing so many other things in the classroom, but golly, it’s a blast.”
He said he pulls the violin out every once and a while to encourage students.
“They day that I retire, I’ll have to give that back, and I try not to think about that,” Janke said, jokingly.
The VAST program, which includes 25 violins and a cello, was paid for by years of lollipop sales, a donation from Pelco Structural and a grant from the Claremore Public School Foundation.
Because the Claremore Middle School and High School band directors don’t teach violin, Janke has partnered with the Claremore nonprofit Musician’s Haven to have free, public string instrument lessons on a weekly basis, in a program the group is calling String Theory.
In past years, Janke’s music students have plaid during the Bluegrass and Chili Festival.
Two current VAST students, Lincoln Bass and Hagert, will perform at the Claremore Public School Foundation 30th Anniversary Dinner, Tuesday night, at RSU.
The beginning VAST group is also the subject of a student documentary from Rogers State University set to release in December as part of Dr. Lee Williams’ documentary production class. The documentary will be available for viewing on YouTube and RSU TV.