How do you get to the State House?

Practice, practice, practice.

Last October, 16 students from the Chebeague Island school picked up violins for the first time. Six months later they were playing at the State House for the opening of the Maine Legislature. Not bad for a group of fourth through sixth graders. Even better was how delightful they sounded.

Gathered beneath the dome, the budding impresarios did some last-minute tuning, rosined their bows and displayed a minimum of fidgeting amongst themselves. The only thing to surpass their collective excitement was the level of pride from the group of parents and grandparents who’d assembled in the crowd to hear them play.

There was no Mozart, no Handel nor even a little Beethoven. Instead, the children opened the concert with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” creating the most non-partisan smile to sweep through the halls in years. They played on key; they played in unison; they played with a spirit for which their music teacher, Alison Manion, can and should take a very deep bow.

Mrs. Manion has been teaching the children how to play using the Suzuki method whereby they learn the music by listening to it repeatedly on CD and then playing it over and over by rote memory. She has also emphasized additional music literacy so they can understand about pitch and which fingers to use. The class has been successful in part due to Manion’s own talent and great popularity amongst the students, and because of the support of the parents as well.

When the idea of placing delicate violins in the hands of kids who had previously not mastered any instrument beyond drumming on a tabletop and playing a cereal box kazoo, there was some doubt about the program’s prospects. One grandparent remarked that the first week her granddaughter came home with the violin and began practicing she wasn’t sure which one was going to get tossed out the door first: the violin or the daughter. Apparently nerves were ultimately soothed once the father stepped in to try his hand on the bow and failed to produce a sound any less strident than his daughter’s. Both the violin and practice sessions gained new respect.

But there’s more to this story than a concert at the Capitol. Thanks to determination of one very special fourth grader, Anna Maine, the students were invited to a private meeting in Governor Angus King’s office.

Several years ago while studying Maine’s history Anna thought the governor should come to Chebeague and learn more about island life – perhaps thinking that this aspect of Maine’s heritage had been somewhat overlooked in the historical annals, and so she wrote him a letter and invited him to the island.

Governor King declined the invitation, but offered to meet with her should she ever come to the State House. Two months ago, Anna put aside her stationary and sent his office an email announcing the class’s pending concert. The governor kept his word and all 16 students (parents and grandparents as well) were treated to a special visit in the governor’s office.

There are 33 students enrolled in grades K-6 at the Chebeague School. There is no football team or marching band and the only reason there is now a choir of violins is thanks to a grant from the MBNA Education Fund and the Island Institute’s Island Community Fund. If the present level of musical interest and leadership continues to hit the right notes, perhaps some day there will be a full-scale orchestra as well.