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Santa Barbara Strings to train more aspiring young musicians with life-long learning programs

Santa Barbara Strings youth orchestra rehearses for their winter concert in Santa Barbara, December 11, 2022.
Beth Thornton
Santa Barbara Strings youth orchestra rehearses for the winter concert in Santa Barbara, December 11, 2022.

The non-profit Santa Barbara Strings trains aspiring young musicians throughout Santa Barbara County. In addition to lessons and performances, the organization is expanding opportunities with scholarships for early training.

Conductor and artistic director Mary Beth Woodruff founded Santa Barbara Strings in 2009 to provide high level classical music training to students in Santa Barbara County.

As the name suggests, the focus is on string instruments.

“In the string family we have the violins that are the smallest, and then the viola and then the cello and the double bass, and then the piano,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff is an acclaimed violinist. She grew up in Santa Barbara and said she left town as a teenager in search of more advanced training. She has since made her way back to the area to raise her family.

And today, thanks to her efforts, about 70 students participate in Santa Barbara Strings, ranging in age from 4 to 19 years old.

“One of the things that’s wonderful about our organization are the older kids and how they help the younger ones,” she said.

Students progress through a three-tiered program, they take individual lessons and perform as a group a few times a year. Woodruff said some students also participate in chamber music ensembles that perform at schools and community venues.

“One of our Santa Barbara Strings cellists played with me at a senior home in Santa Maria, so that’s another place in which I love to reach out,” she said.

Woodruff said students are immersed in the study of classical music and musical training, but the program is about more than mastering an instrument. Playing music, she said, is good training for most everything.

“It trains the human as the athlete and as the actor and as the poet and as the scientist who is solving problems,” Woodruff said.

She said performing live on stage as part of an orchestra also requires teamwork and careful listening.

“Not only do they have to listen when they’re making music, but they need to listen to the silence in between, and they need to listen to each other,” Woodruff said.

Santa Barbara Strings orchestra includes violin, viola, cello (pictured), double bass, and piano.
Santa Barbara Strings orchestra includes violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano.

The costs associated with ongoing music lessons and renting or owning a string instrument can be prohibitive for many families, so the organization aims to keep tuition fees manageable, and they also offer scholarships.

Their newest program, Early Strings Training, is in its first year. The program puts instruments in the hands of young people who may otherwise not have the opportunity to play.

Linda Stafford Burrows is the board president. She said providing instruments and scholarships for Early Strings Training will open up opportunities for more students to participate.

“If there’s a need and there’s a desire from that child and their family to have this musical training, Santa Barbara Strings will figure out a way to make it happen,” she said.

Funded through grants and donations, participants in Early Strings Training start with introductory lessons and, over time, move into the Strings orchestra.

Burrows said educators work closely with all students for weekly lessons and performance preparation. The instructors are classical musicians that, when not working with Santa Barbara Strings, perform in orchestras and symphonies around the country. Their years of experience and training, she said, make them strong mentors for the young musicians.

“Strings are among the most complicated instruments to learn properly, and to be able to go with confidence into a piece by Bach or Mozart as they progress in their mastery, they need to have all those fundamentals,” Burrows said.

Violinist Max Zee is 11-years-old. He started playing violin a year and a half ago, and said he plans to stick with the Strings program throughout high school.

“It’s different than just playing a solo piece because you get to interact and play with the rest of the people in the orchestra,” Zee said.

Mia Richmond, a 14-year-old cellist, joined the Santa Barbara Strings about five years ago. She’s now in the advanced high school group and said her friends, especially in the cello section, make putting the time in for rehearsals much more fun.

“I love performing. I like making people smile and when people enjoy the music, it makes me happy,” Richmond said.

For more information go to SantaBarbaraStrings.org

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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