Through a computer screen, sophomore Josie Chase leads aspiring young musicians to new heights.

“The thing I like most about teaching young musicians is seeing them improve and grow musically,” said Chase, a Virginia Tech music major with concentrations in education and performance. “It’s really cool to teach some of the same students I taught last year when they were beginners, and to see how far they’ve come since then.”

Chase and other School of Performing Arts students are leading music lessons as part of the Virginia Tech String Project.

Now in its 12th year, the program pairs Virginia Tech students with children and teens in area elementary, middle, and high schools. The program provides music and music education majors with pre-service teaching experience while providing younger musicians with access to affordable string music lessons.

COVID-19 has posed major challenges to the program, as lessons are usually taught in person in weekly group classes.

But student-teachers and Molly Wilkens-Reed, director of the String Project, have risen to the occasion. Now the 70 participating schoolchildren and teens meet in video conferences with student-teachers for weekly one-on-one sessions. The group lesson format continues in monthly, socially distant lessons outdoors.

The String Project most recently held a Halloween-themed group rehearsal in the Perry Street Parking Garage in Blacksburg. The first outdoor lesson was held in early September. Both events were fully masked.

In addition to the one-on-one and group sessions, student-teachers are using an online program to help the younger students practice outside of their lessons. The app allows the the young musicians to upload videos of themselves performing their instruments. The student-teachers can then provide tips for improvement.

Molly Wilkens-Reed, director of the Virginia Tech String Project, wears a witch costume and plays violin as she leads music instruction as Montgomery County school students, along with Virginia Tech students and faculty, donned Halloween costumes for their String Project gathering in the Perry Street Parking Garage in Blacksburg. The Virginia Tech String Project is a community-outreach program, offering small group and individual instruction on a variety of string instruments. Instruction is provided by graduate and undergraduate teachers, under the supervision of Music faculty.
Molly Wilkens-Reed, director of the Virginia Tech String Project, leads music instruction in the Perry Street Parking Garage. Photo by Ray Meese

Chase teaches cello and violin. While virtual music instruction presents natural challenges, the opportunity to continue teaching has been rewarding, she said.

“By nature, music instruction is something that’s done best in person,” said Chase. “I’ve really had to learn how to verbalize concepts through virtual instruction. Each week feels like it gets a little bit easier and better than the last.”

Wilkens-Reed, in her third year as director of the String Project, said she’s inspired by the perseverance of everyone involved.

“In the face of this challenge, we’ve created a meaningful experience for our student-teachers and the community,” said Wilkens-Reed. “I’m proud of this special program, and I’m proud of our student-teachers.”

Written by Andrew Adkins