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Phillips passes on strings studies to next generation

January 13, 2013

Shandy Phillips, right, helps Maya Seman-Varner, left, hold her bow and violin correctly during practice with the Starkville Area Strings School at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection's student center. (Photo by Steven Nalley, SDN)

Famed violinist Charles Auguste de BĂ©riot once called the violin "the king of instruments" because he believed a violin player's goal is "to imitate the accents of the human voice." Shandy Phillips says there is another reason the violin holds this title: It is one of the most difficult instruments to learn to play.

After graduating from Starkville High School in 1992, Phillips earned a bachelor's degree from the Juilliard School in New York City in violin performance and a master of music degree from The Boston Conservatory, and she now teaches music at Mississippi State University and performs in the Starkville-MSU Orchestra and the MSU Philharmonia. She said it all started when she was six years old, and some begin studying violin at an even younger age, because the older students get, the more difficult it becomes to develop the needed motor skills.

"Many begin at the age of three," Phillips said. "Violin is one of those instruments which is so difficult to learn how to play that the more a child is unaware of the difficulties of the instrument, the better off they are. In other words, they look at it as a challenge. If it's put forth as a challenge, they don't see it as something hard, they just see it as something to overcome."

Phillips began teaching violin in Starkville in 2010 with the goal of re-establishing a Starkville Area Strings School like the one she was part of as a child, giving a new generation of children the same opportunities she had.

Lucy Phillips, Shandy's mother, said the program where Shandy was educated began in 1980, beginning with 12 students in Columbus and 12 Starkville students three months later. The parent organization that developed for these programs was critical to their success, Lucy said, particularly in obtaining a grant from the Mississippi Arts Council to establish an orchestra program in the Starkville School District.

"At its heyday, this program had developed to about 60 kids," Lucy said. "(Students were) taking all the top chairs at Mississippi All-State (Orchestra) and providing music for many of the organizations in town. It was very much integrated into the community. It doesn't hurt that (my husband) Robert and I are both musicians. We had a vision of quality. We traveled all over the country to workshops seeking teachers, and then for our workshops, bringing in teachers from outside — anything we could do that would build this program."

Largely because it was difficult to retain teachers, Phillips said, the program began dwindling in the early 1990s, eventually sliding into a hiatus. Meanwhile, Shandy spent many years studying and performing in New York City and Boston, and both Lucy and Shandy said it was a desire to end this hiatus that brought Shandy back to Starkville.

"We have been very appreciative that Shandy would come back here and try to do what she can to rebuild what we once had," Lucy said. "We had the finest and the strongest — in terms of quality — program in the state of Mississippi. It was strong, and it can be strong again. It's hard to be part of something that's very strong and then watch it die."

Shandy added, "Especially when it started when you were six. Most of your memories include it. I'm invested in this area. I have known as many talented kids in this area as I saw examples of in the Northeast, the same kind of talent, just not in an area advantageous to developing those talents."

To provide this development, Shandy said she pursues several performance and networking opportunities for the Starkville Area Strings School, including the Cotton District Arts Festival, the Mississippi Music Teachers Association, the MSU Philharmonia, the Starkville-MSU Orchestra, and violin festivals and workshops in other states.

Rachel Seman-Varner, who has two children in the Starkville Area Strings School, said her family moved to Starkville last summer. Her children were going to start violin classes at their former school in the fourth grade, she said, so when they found that Starkville's schools had no violin programs of their own, she contacted Backstage Music, and they put her in touch with Shandy.

"She has a very calming, easy approach, and she focuses on regular practice. Because we're beginners ... instead of making it a long practice, she suggests we practice 10-15 minutes every day and kind of build up slowly," Seman-Varner said. "I'm totally inspired by these young musicians (Shandy works with.)"

One of Shandy's youngest students is Samuel Lee, a six-year-old from Starkville Academy. His father, Kevin Lee, said music appreciation runs strong in his family because his wife works with the MSU School of Music, and as such, both parents plan to introduce Samuel to multiple instruments.

"(Shandy's) understanding is very deep and wide," Kevin said. "She understands her students very well. She's wonderful."

Shandy also works with older, more experienced students. Fourteen-year-old home-schooled student Daniel Jones said he has played violin for about 8-9 years under three other teachers before Shandy.

"I really love the sound (of the violin)," Jones said. "I've always loved it ever since I was really little. I like (Shandy) because she likes to focus on intonation; that's very important. A lot of other teachers I've had don't focus so much on intonation and more on posture or playing notes right.”

Helen Peng, a sixth grader at Armstrong Middle School, said she has played the violin for five years, and she said she appreciates Shandy's patience and her clear explanations. She said she first started playing violin because she loved horses, and horsehair is a key component for a violin's bow.

"I just think it sounds really pretty," Peng said, "and when you go to an orchestra, the first thing you really notice is the strings, the violins, because they're right there in front of you, and it's the first thing you see when you look up."

Xiaoling Tong, Peng's mother, said Peng started violin lessons in Columbus, and she felt fortunate for Peng to be able to continue those lessons with Shandy when Peng’s Columbus teacher moved away. She said she, too, appreciates Shandy's gentle approach, and she believes violin lessons teach children skills they can use in other pursuits.

"Really, Shandy helps her to deal with the frustration, because there's a lot of hard skills involved here," Tong said. "They need to learn how to deal with this problem, this frustration. They learn a lot ... how to be consistent and committed to something. That's a learning process and a good trait for kids to learn. If you want to do something (well), it's driven by interest, but hard work is necessary."

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