The Bellingham Festival of Music recently donated $10,000 to the Bellingham Schools Foundation, bringing the milestone of a stringed instrument for each fifth grader in the district within sight.

Currently, school instruments for the fifth grade string program stay at school, which means they aren’t available for home practice. Anyone who’s ever played an instrument knows how important the home practice piece is for becoming proficient at that instrument, so reaching the goal to get an instrument into every student’s hands would be an important achievement.

Ferndale fifth graders pay rapt attention as they learn about their instruments. Photo courtesy: Bellingham Festival of Music

“That would be a game-changer for music instruction for our children,” says Kimberly Lund, director of the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation.

Music education has been shown to enhance self-discipline, confidence, mental capabilities, stress reduction, patience, responsibility—as well as fostering an appreciation for the music itself, Lund says.

Playing and appreciating music enriches the lives of those who take part. Music, once it becomes part of our lives, sticks with us.

Barry Hembree, chairperson of the Bellingham Festival of Music’s board of directors and a luthier, recalls how his love affair with music started: it was when he received a recorder in the third grade.

“Music’s been a part of my life ever since then,” he says.

Thanks to donations from the Bellingham Festival of Music, students in Bellingham and Ferndale have the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument. Music education is shown to have many benefits outside of just learning to play. Photo courtesy: Bellingham Festival of Music

And the Festival is committed to helping make music a part of the lives of school children. It has been a goal of their outreach programs from the beginning.

“One of our core values at the Festival is to use this platform to push classical music back into our communities,” Hembree says. 

This is not the Festival’s first donation to this cause, having donated a total of $42,000 to fund stringed music education in both Bellingham and Ferndale school districts.

The Festival’s original donation of $12,000, in 2014, helped Bellingham schools jump start their fifth grade strings program after it had languished in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. In 2014, they partnered with the Bellingham School Foundation, the Bellingham Music Coalition, the Bellingham School District, the Bellingham Band Boosters and the Bellingham Alumni Band to re-launch fifth grade strings.

In 2017, the Festival turned its attention to the Ferndale School District, donating $10,000 to provide 36 new string instruments to help revive its program.

Ferndale strings teacher Bette Anne Schwede introduces students to their new instruments. Photo courtesy: Bellingham Festival of Music

“When the fifth grade strings clubs were re-started as a pilot program, we could not guarantee instruments,” Bette Ann Schwede, a teacher in Ferndale’s fifth grade strings program, says in a press release. “Most students had to provide their own, either by renting or by borrowing from a friend or neighbor.

“Needless to say, the class was small,” she continues.

“After [Bellingham Festival of Music] provided the grant for instruments, most classes have numbered between 24-30 students. Many of the students who participate now would not have been able to rent an instrument. The instruments made playing a stringed instrument inclusive, instead of limiting it to those families who could absorb the cost of renting.”

Ferndale students hold their violins for first time thanks to the Bellingham Festival of Music’s fifth grade strings program. Photo courtesy: Bellingham Festival of Music

Hembree, who helped to purchase the instruments, was present when they were handed out to one group of Ferndale students. The kids were visibly excited, he says; some even hugged their instruments.

“It was a magical experience,” he says. “It lifts your heart to see that.”

The latest gift of $10,000 to the Bellingham Schools Foundation will go toward the purchase of more instruments to keep that magic going. The donation was in response to an ask by the Foundation after it received a $20,000 gift from an anonymous donor to help fund the strings program.

The district realized the donation put them close to having an instrument for every child, Lund says, and another $20,000 would be enough to accomplish that goal.

The Bellingham Public Schools Foundation is closing in on enough funding to ensure each fifth grader has a stringed instrument to take home to practice. Photo courtesy: Bellingham Festival of Music

Having access to an instrument and instruction may unlock doors for children who otherwise might never have realized their passion for music.

“It gives everyone an opportunity, and for some it really sticks with them and becomes a passion,” says Hembree.

He points to the Festival’s annual Welcome Home concert, which features a professional musician who got their start in Whatcom County—and some of those musicians got their start in the fifth grade strings program.

The Welcome Home concert is another arm of the Festival’s outreach program, as is the fifth grade strings program. Other programs the Festival supports include Beethoven in the Schools, where the “composer” visits third grade classrooms, and the Play it Forward program, where students from the Colburn Conservatory in California spend a week in the schools playing for and mentoring Whatcom County youth. The Festival also partners with local nonprofit Blue Skies for Children to provide instruments to homeless, low-income and foster children.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Play it Forward program is on hiatus this year, along with the Festival itself, but both events—as well as January’s Welcome Home Concert, which cellist Maya Enstad performed at this year—will return.

Hembree says the Festival has been fortunate to support music in the schools because its patrons have been generous in supporting outreach programs.

Along with the Festival’s $10,000 donation, the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra) donated $5,000 to the effort. That leaves just $5,000 to reach the $20,000 goal.

While Lund admits current circumstances in light of the coronavirus pandemic have “upended” business as usual, she’s hopeful that businesses and individuals will step up to donate the last $5,000.

“We’re confident we’ll fill the gap,” she says. “We’re really thrilled that we might be able to bring string instruments to every 5th grade student regardless of income.”

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