Twice a week, after school lets out, UCF students are teaching violin at elementary schools across Central Florida through A Gift For Music (AGFM), a program of the Central Florida nonprofit A Gift For Teaching that has provided thousands of kids with tuition-free music education for twenty years. Some of the instructors are musical education majors who plan to make careers out of music pedagogy. Others, like Angelica Chen, have different career aspirations.
A junior in biomedical studies who started her musical journey at Fern Creek Elementary in the third grade, Chen is herself a graduate of A Gift For Music. She quickly developed through the program – winning competitions, and even becoming concertmaster of the top orchestra. Now she’s an instructor, and a star of the program. “When she teaches, she can relate to students in the beginning of their string instrument education,” says Sarah Overton, director of A Gift For Music. “She creates a lasting connection between her students, their teacher, and AGFM. We’re so proud of all that she’s accomplished.”
Pride is abundant within A Gift For Music. Instructors and administrators within AGFM truly believe in their students, and in the lasting impact of music education. The Elementary Strings program serves approximately 400 third through fifth grade students across eight Title-1, low-income schools and community centers in the city of Orlando, predominately located in Hispanic communities, and the five Saturday String Orchestras prepare middle and high school students for music education in college.
“When students learn to play the violin, they are inspired by the notion that if they can learn to play an instrument, they can learn to do anything,” says Overton. “As our students develop in our program, they become motivated, confident and eager to learn.”
The evidence of the lasting effect is clear: since 2011, 100 percent of the students who started in the third-grade class and continued through the high school orchestra program have graduated and gone to college. That’s a significant figure, especially for low-income students, when Orange County overall carries an 84.7 percent graduation rate.
According to Overton, students in AGFM leave lessons and rehearsals with a sense of personal fulfillment that they carry with them throughout their lives. And, having instructors from UCF provides a direct connection between younger students and higher education. “By creating close ties with a university, our students are exposed at a young age to the prospect of college not only as a distant concept, but something that is presented to them as attainable,” says Overton. “The partnership creates an easy access point for them to discuss the realities and lasting benefits of higher education. Our instructors aren’t just teachers, they’re role models!”
One of the goals of AGFM was to give music education students a lab through afterschool programs, and with all the instructors being current UCF students or alumni, the experiment seems to be working well. It can be a challenge to present complex collegiate musical ideas in a way that is fun, engaging and exciting to elementary school students. “We’re excited to train and develop our community’s future music educators. With our after-school staff’s training in music and music education at UCF, they’re able to actively apply the knowledge and skills learned in their lectures to our students developing their skill set at the beginning of their musical careers,” says Overton. “Thanks to our UCF instructors, our students are learning quickly, being inspired and having fun with their music education.”
A top-notch music education at that – thanks to Dr. Chung Park, A Gift For Music’s education coordinator and director of string music education at UCF. When Park began his position with AGFM, he shifted the curriculum to reflect a focus in aural training and music theory while giving students a strong technical foundation on their instrument. “The ease with which Dr. Park expresses his deep understanding for the inner-mechanics of music – how complex musical concepts are developed, and how they can be changed according to their setting – is producing a new generation of technical and creative music makers through AGFM,” says Overton. “He gets students excited not only about technical music-making on their instrument, but about taking the time to appreciate the beauty and complexity that exists in everyday life.”
Park’s goal is to have all AGFM students play at a level that is comparable to pre-college music programs in the country, setting them up to easily gain admittance to college programs later on – many of them at UCF, like Chen. “I believe wholeheartedly in my bones in the transformative power of music, and its ability to generate upward social mobility in the lives of our students,” affirms Park.
He has held the position for two years, and in that time has expanded access to the programs within the community and helped almost all of the strings education majors get involved. What keeps instructors involved with the programs are the eagerness and desire they see from the young students. “It’s easy to give up my Saturday when I see how hungry these kids are to learn,” says Park. “We had to add an hour to the Saturday program because the kids asked for it! It’s inspiring to see them find empowerment from the program, and I hope that’s something they carry with them into college and as professionals.”
Overton credits the surrounding community for helping the organization reach 20 years. “It means that a love and deep appreciation for the arts are at the core of our community’s values. Central Florida is home to state-of-the-art facilities for world class entertainment, our museums consistently attract internationally renowned arts exhibits, and we hold an Oscar-qualifying film festival right here at home – not to mention the creative innovation of its theme parks! Our community continues to support the arts, and by championing programs like A Gift For Music, we show that we’re not only interested in investing in the cultural landscape as it exists today, we also want to invest in the community that will exist 20 years from today.”
Get involved with A Gift For Music by organizing fundraisers, volunteering as a classroom assistant, or simply going to support students at one of their 16+ annual free performances. Tickets to the 20th anniversary celebration are available at www.agiftformusic.org/celebrate20