Written By: Anne Blue, Photos By: Walter Calahan
Student Micah Mulhern practices at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, New Windsor.
When he was a preschooler, Micah Mulhern was fascinated by the musical guests on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. His favorite was world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Soon the New Windsor boy began begging his mother for violin lessons.
“I knew violin was in the same family of instruments as cello, and I thought it would be interesting to try,” recalled Micah, who’s now 10.
His mother, Kathy Mulhern, ignored Micah’s repeated requests until he said, “Maybe Yo-Yo Ma will give me violin lessons.”
“That was when I realized he was really serious,” admitted Mulhern.
As she investigated the options for violin lessons, she discovered the Carroll County String Project. Micah began lessons just after he turned 5 and has been happily playing violin with the String Project ever since.
The Carroll County String Project is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring affordable, high-quality music instruction to students of all ages, in places they can get to. In short, if a youth wants to play, String Project strives to make that happen, through individual and group instruction.
Carroll County String Project is the brainchild of Peggy Ward, who recognized a need for well-trained string instrument teachers and greater access to lessons for children and adults in Carroll County. Ward, a violist with professional experience in several major orchestras, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, joined the faculties of Carroll and Frederick community colleges and McDaniel College in 2001.
When she retired from college teaching in 2007, she decided to try to fill the void of string instrument instruction by hosting a series of Sunday afternoon string classes at McDaniel. These group classes marked the beginning of the String Project.
Serendipitously, Carroll County gained two new residents in 2008 — pianist Kathryn Harsha and violinist Bagus Wiswakarma, both professionally trained musicians who connected with Ward and have since helped develop her vision into the Carroll County String Project.
Harsha, executive director of the String Project, moved to Carroll from the Cleveland area, where there is a plethora of professional and community orchestras, and many well-trained teachers. The lack of depth in the string music scene here came as a big surprise.
“Moving into the Eldersburg area,” said Harsha, “I was surprised to find that I had to drive to Westminster, Baltimore City or into Howard County to find a violin teacher for my children. The String Project is filling that void in our county.”
Wiswakarma moved to Carroll County around 2008 to be closer to his wife’s parents and to raise his children in an area with fresh air and open space.
A native of Indonesia, Wiswakarma studied violin in Germany and spent many years as a performer and teacher in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. When he arrived here, Wiswakarma integrated himself into the county’s music scene, and Ward soon recruited him as a String Project violin instructor.
“In order to offer the highest-quality instruction, we have very specific parameters for our teachers,” said Harsha. “Each teacher must have a minimum of a bachelor’s and have completed or be working towards a master’s degree in their instrument.”
Each teacher must also mesh well with students, parents, and other faculty while helping to further the vision of the String Project. Harsha noted that the program has recruited a number of teachers from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, who bring their musical expertise along with enthusiastic energy that ensures a fun musical experience for students.
Wiswakarma and Harsha both extol the pleasures of music study.
“Teaching violin is a challenge that keeps me young,” said Wiswakarma. “The best part of making music is the process, the rehearsal. It makes you smarter and helps you become a real human being. If students can feel the music, they will learn to love the violin.”
Harsha said one of the goals of the String Project is to offer lessons to students who might not otherwise have access to, or be able to afford, private instruction.
“We offer group lessons, which are less expensive than private lessons, and we have a scholarship program for families who need that.” said Harsha. “Also, with multiple studio locations — Eldersburg and New Windsor — as well as programs in different schools, we are working hard to make Peggy Ward’s vision become a reality: affordable and accessible music instruction in Carroll County.”
Though her duties as executive director of the program keep her busy, Harsha still teaches a few piano students. In either role, she loves being in the String Project’s Eldersburg studio on evenings when the building is bustling with activity.
“I walk the hallways and hear everyone working hard, making their own music,” said Harsha. “A sense of music just pours out of our building, and it is wonderful.”
One evening a week, that outpouring includes the sound of Brandon Foster’s viola.
Brandon, a 17-year-old senior at Liberty High School and the son of Thaddeaus and Dionne Foster of Eldersburg, started playing viola in the public school program when he was 9.
“I chose to play viola after I attended a symphony orchestra concert,” said Brandon. “I really liked how the music sounded, but I didn’t want to play violin because everybody plays violin and I liked the sound of the viola better.”
A serious and focused student, Brandon wanted to learn more than what his teacher at school was able to teach him.
“Taking lessons through the String Project is really fun,” said Brandon. “My teacher, Anna Bross, has really done a lot to improve my technique and give me a better foundation in viola. She helps me with audition pieces, gives me strategies for dealing with nerves, and helps me make my music sound interesting.”
After four years of lessons, Brandon credits his instructors with helping him make significant improvements in his playing and build quite an impressive resume.
In addition to the Liberty High School orchestra, he plays in the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra, has been chosen for All-County Orchestra every year since sixth grade, been named to the Maryland All-State Orchestra, and received audition-based scholarships to several summer music programs.
“I feel a euphoria when I can play a piece well on my viola,” said Brandon. “I usually practice two hours a day so I have also learned a lot about time management, and that it takes a lot of practice to be good at anything.”
Micah Mulhern echoed Brandon’s sentiments: “Bagus is a fabulous teacher. He does a lot of stuff I need help with, like scales, rhythm and posture. I think I learn respect and perseverance, too.”
Micah was also quick to point out that the String Project also does a great job of keeping music interesting and fun for students.
“Last summer we had our recital at Hershey Park,” he said, “And every October we have a Fright Music recital where students and teachers wear Halloween costumes and modify their songs to sound a little silly or spooky. It’s fun.”
“Music and art give kids the idea that they can accomplish something,” said Kathy Mulhern. “Micah — and all of our family — has gained an exposure to classical music while he is learning responsibility and developing a very positive sense of self.”
“While youth sports seem to dominate our culture, the arts are just as essential for our children,” said Mulhern.
The Carroll County String Project offers individual and group music lessons to students of all ages on a variety of instruments including violin, viola, cello, string bass, piano, flute, French horn and guitar. Lessons are held at multiple county locations. For more information, call 443-300-8702, email email@example.com or visit www.ccstringproject.org