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Bristol’s Community Strings Program makes music accessible for all ages

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Let’s be honest: string instruments can be intimidating. One can only guess how many Itzhak Perlman-wannabes have picked up a violin only to drop it immediately after hearing the instrument howl in protest.

Bristol’s Community String Project (CSP) is working to make learning to play string instruments – bass, cello, viola, violin, and starting this fall, classical guitar – more accessible and less intimidating. Robert Arsenault, then chair of the Performing Arts Department at Mount Hope High School, started the program in 2009 with Bethany Sousa, a former band student. Sousa offered violin lessons that summer and over 30 students participated. The program subsequently began to hold afterschool lessons at each of the town’s elementary schools. 

Within five years, CSP grew to include 100 students, roughly one-third of whom qualify for financial assistance with lessons and instrument rentals. CSP has expanded to include a youth orchestra program for middle and high school students, a summer youth string camp, and beginner, intermediate, and advanced ensemble lessons for adults. Bristol residency is not required, and participants come from around the state.

Learning a string instrument benefits students’ overall learning ability, according to Alan Bernstein, CSP’s Program and Executive Director, and retired music teacher. Says Bernstein, “The same types of brain power that you would be using to, say, play a symphony, are the same parts of the brain you would use to solve mathematical formulas because you’re identifying and problem-solving within a pattern.”

It’s not just about learning and practicing – CSP also provides opportunities for students to perform locally at events like art nights and house parties. For prospective adult students, “String Instrument Playgrounds” offers a no-stress chance to test-pluck the strings before enrolling.

CSP has proven popular across the generations. Bernstein shared the review of a parent whose daughter was also enrolled in the program: “This program is terrific. My daughter has been a CSP beginner at Guiteras on violin this year, and for us both to have the opportunity to learn together has been a great joy for us both. I can’t say enough good things about this program!”