DOWNTOWN — While other kids were out playing or watching TV after school, Erin Wells was inside a classroom with her chin on a violin, learning the foreign language of classical music.
There were Friday afternoons spent with a group of three dozen fourth and fifth graders, some with a few years of musical training under their belt, others having more recently picked up their first instrument, but all there to be taught the valuable lesson of playing as an ensemble.
Wells is now a sophomore at Santa Monica High School, playing in both its symphony and chamber orchestras five years after graduating from Elemental Strings, a local program that she credits with helping her prepare for the secondary schools where the music is more group centric.
“It taught me how to be in an orchestra and play with all the different sections,” she said.
The program for elementary-aged students enters its sixth season this year facing financial uncertainty after the Maestro Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Santa Monica, had to cut its funding of Elemental Strings for the first time, battling its own set of economic challenges much like other charities.
The result is that Elemental Strings will have to begin charging its students — most of whom are from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District — tuition, which could prove to be cost-prohibitive for some of the young musicians. The annual tuition will be set at $600, which covers 28 rehearsals and three concerts.
Hoping to raise funds for a new scholarship fund, Elemental Strings will host a benefit concert tonight at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica that features prominent musicians from the area, including parents who are members of the LA Chamber Orchestra.
Josephine Liu Moerschel, the executive director of Elemental Strings, said the program has a diverse mix of students, some of whom come from Title 1 elementary schools, which have a higher proportion of students who are on the federal free lunch program.
“The program has a fair amount of Title 1 students who can’t afford private lessons but are interested in music so they come and get all this extra attention they would not necessarily get in the classroom,” she said.
Many of the students have gone on to other orchestras at the Lincoln and John Adams middle schools and Samohi, learning how to play as an ensemble.
“Because kids get busy, a lot drop their musical instruction over the course of five years … so it’s remarkable to see how many are leaders of their orchestra and inspiring their peers to learn more about how to play better too,” Moerschel said.
The program is led by Kirsten Bersch, one of its founding faculty members and music teacher for the district’s elementary schools. Bersch said the program gives students additional support during their formative years of instruction, pointing out that many of them have had musical training for only about a year before entering Elemental Strings.
“I want all kids to be able to experience music and make the choice themselves about whether this is something they want to be a part of their life,” Bersch said. “I feel giving that opportunity to every child in our community is so important.”
Angela Woo, the director of instrumental music at John Adams, said she notices differences between the students who have been through Elemental Strings and those who have not.
“It’s a question of experience and the students who come in are not only more comfortable with their individual techniques, but are more familiar with the ensemble dynamic,” Woo, who is not affiliated with the program, said.
Parents also give the program rave reviews, some saying that Elemental Strings fueled their children’s passion for music.
Kimberlea Daggy, an announcer on KUSC who sings and plays the piano, said she noticed her daughter Celia would look forward to the two-hour rehearsals every Friday afternoon.
“She couldn’t wait to put together a string quartet with her friends to play what she wrote,” Daggy said. “She loved the interaction, she loved the camaraderie, she loved the music.”
Celia Daggy, who is now a sixth grader at Lincoln Middle School, follows in the footsteps of her musical family. Her father, Roger Daggy, is an organist who will perform at the benefit concert.
The younger Daggy said the program gave her a better view of ensemble playing, but the most enjoyable moments came with her friends.
“I think probably one of the (best) parts of it was being able to go the 15 minute snack break when I could mess around with my friends on the patio,” she said.