By Brenna R. Kelly
Every Tuesday after school, about 20 students gather in Elizabeth Sisson’s music room at Walton-Verona Elementary to strum the strings.
The students sit in chairs with Kentucky’s official state instrument on their laps. Soon the strands of “Lil’ Liza Jane” fill the room.
It’s the sound of the Swingin’ Dulcimers, a student group that plays at community events.
“Sometimes I think I can’t keep up and play with them because they are getting so good,” said Sisson, who has been teaching music at the Walton-Verona Independent school for 22 years.
Sisson began using the dulcimer, which was created in Appalachia in the late 1800s, as a way to allow her students to experience every type of instrument. She had keyboards, percussion instruments and recorders to use as a wind instrument, but violins are expensive and little hands can’t fit around a guitar.
“Because you lay the dulcimer on your lap, you don’t have that problem on having to get your fingers around the fret board,” she said.
Allowing young students to play and experiment with instruments is the best way to cultivate an understanding and love of music, Sisson said.
“I just feel like the kids, if they are going to do music, they need to do it,” she said. “You can talk about it or watch videos, or that kind of thing. But they need to have their hands in it and know what it’s like to read music and keep a beat. We have always had a real strong tradition of doing that here.”
Walton-Verona Independent’s strong tradition of music education led this year to the 1,600-student district being name one of the Best Communities for Music Education by The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation. The district was one of 527 districts in the nation – and the only one in Kentucky – to receive the designation, which recognizes outstanding music education programs.
“Our administration understands that music education increases academic ability and that it makes for a well-rounded person,” Sisson said, “and it just really motivates kids.”
Chris Miller, band director at Walton-Verona High School, said he believes the rural Boone County communities of Walton and Verona, which make up the district, have always placed a high-value on music education. The district’s band program was established in 1959.
“It really comes down to tradition,” he said. “We never really had a point where we were eliminating programs or cutting back.”
With three schools, the district employs four music teachers. In addition to Sisson and Miller, there is a middle school music teacher and a high school choral teacher.
In 2014, the district opened a new gym and converted the existing gym into a music suite, which includes an instrumental room, choral room and general music room.
“To have what we have going on here takes a commitment from our administration and our parent community that they believe this is an important aspect of education, which requires funding, proper facilities and all the things that go into making any program successful,” Miller said.
When Sisson began using dulcimers 19 years ago, she began with just 12 instruments, forcing students to have to take turns. Then a parent offered to buy 12 more, which allowed every student to use a dulcimer, she said.
The instruments are made of corrugated cardboard and came unassembled. Today, the instruments sell online for a $432 for a set of 12. A cafeteria worker’s husband put the instruments together and they are still being used.
Sisson begins teaching the instrument to 3rd-graders in the fall. Students learn mostly folk songs they can sing along to, such as “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Cumberland Gap.”
Students also learn the origins of the instrument, which is believed to be an adaption of stringed instruments used by German, French and Scandinavian immigrants, according to the Hills of Kentucky Dulcimer Club, a group of about 150 dulcimer players based in Covington.
“We talk some about Daniel Boone and the whole Appalachian movement through Kentucky to settle the West,” Sisson said. These lessons coordinate with the social studies units students study in the primary grades.
By the spring of 3rd grade, students can play the instrument well enough to join the Swingin’ Dulcimers. The group includes students in 3rd grade and up, including a few middle school students. In addition to school events, the group plays at community events such as the Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati and the Salt Festival at Big Bone Lick State Park.
Seeing students being given the chance to experience the state instrument is refreshing, said Kyle Lee, coordinator of Visual and Performing Arts for the Kentucky Department of Education.
“Not only does this give students a chance to learn the essential skills of playing an instrument, but they are also experiencing Kentucky’s rich cultural history,” he said. “Cross-curricular learning practices such as this are the beginning steps to educating the whole child.”
Although students can use the school’s instruments, some decide to buy their own dulcimers, Sisson said.
“As long as we have been doing it now, sometimes the middle school or high school kids who played will sell theirs to some of the younger kids,” she said. “It’s kind of become a community thing that we have.”
Some students have stayed with Swingin’ Dulcimers until 9th grade, Sisson said. But many leave when they get involved with band at the middle school, she said. And that’s OK with Sisson.
“My goal is to instill in the little kids that love for music and an interest, because they won’t continue with music at middle school or high school if they don’t love it from the start,” she said. “I feel like that’s my job before I send them on, to give them the chance to find out if they really do love it or not so they can continue on as a lifelong enjoyer of music or as a performer.”
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