In a large room at the student center at UNC School of the Arts, six teaching artists are practicing to be 4-year-olds again.
They are getting ready to teach violin to preschoolers at Diggs-Latham Elementary in Winston-Salem. Using wooden instruments – 1/8th and 1/16th the regular size — the little kids will get to see, feel, and hear what it’s like to play a real violin.
About 30 undergraduate, graduate students and recent alumni are members of ArtistCorps, a community-engagement program administered by UNCSA.
“The most (teaching artists) we’ve had is 42. We’re keeping it small during COVID, because there are a lot of questions still,” says Rebecca Nussbaum, director of the Office of Career Development and Community Engagement at UNCSA, and the founder and director of ArtistCorps.
The programs offered vary from year to year. They include the Wolf Method, a pre-phonics language program; and the Vivaldi Project, which introduces 4-year-olds to violin.
Currently, there are programs at Ashley Academy for Cultural & Global Studies, Diggs-Latham Elementary, Easton Elementary, Paisley IB Magnet School, Senior Services, Wiley Magnet Middle School, Brunson Elementary, and Reynolds High School.
In the Vivaldi Project, developed by UNCSA faculty member Ida Bieler, three or four ArtistCorps members start the day team-teaching about 30 children, then break out into groups of one-on-one or two-on-one for more individualized instruction.
The programs last for the entire UNCSA academic year, so there is continuity among the teachers and students. Several of the teaching artists in the Vivaldi Project have been ArtistCorps members for more than two years.
Marta Dorivic, 23, is a UNCSA senior from Serbia.
“I was surprised at how quickly my energy changes when I’m with 30 little kids first thing in the morning,” she says, laughing. “And, in the moment, you have to be super creative. If the kids don’t get it, you have to come up with a different way to explain it.”
Laurence Brooke, 24, from Virginia, say it’s amazing seeing the kids bloom.
“In the first session, they are all shy, because there’s a stranger in the room,” Brooke says. “By the end of the year, they are willing to try things and be silly.”
They say the children’s bravery helped them in their own work. Life as a conservatory student can be pretty serious, and the kids help them to lighten up.
“And we get to teach what we love,” Brooke says, “and pass that to the next generation.”
Besides violin, ArtistCorps programs include instruction in band, orchestra and chorus. Filmmaking programs help public school and ESL students with storytelling skills and English-language usage.
Elementary school students learn dance and visual arts, and sometimes integrate different art forms.
“Lesson plans based on land forms, for example, might use physicality — movement, dance, drama — and visual arts,” Nussbaum says. “They might show how a canyon is formed using Play-Doh with different colors for different types of rock. You wind up with a visual arts project that’s based on how a canyon is created.”
ArtistCorps members in the Morning Music Club teach music and songs to seniors living with dementia.
“Social isolation is an enormous problem with all elders, particularly if they have dementia, so we use songs and community to combat social isolation,” Nussbuam says. “The parts of the brain that are not affected by dementia are the parts that connect with music. Even if they have dementia, they can sing old songs that they learned in their 20s and still learn new music. And singing together provides them with connection.”
The ArtistCorps members are paid a stipend by UNCSA to participate in the program, so it functions as work-study. But working with different populations and sharing their love of art makes it feel like a service project for the teaching artists.
Raffael Papo, 21, is a junior from England who teaches in the Vivaldi Project.
“I started it because I needed money to pay for school,” he says. “But it surprised me how much I enjoyed it. It got me thinking wider or bigger about my career.”
“We strive to have reciprocal relations with all our service partners,” Nussbaum says. “Our students are serving, and service itself changes the artist. The experience of being able to apply your art in a way that’s not within conservatory walls really makes difference for them.”
Now, Papo says, he gets attached to some of the students. “If they have to leave the program for some reason, you miss them. You feel their absence.”
Founded in 2015, ArtistCorps was supported by a grant from AmericCorps for its first three years. After that, it was picked up by UNCSA.
“The artists bring their skills and their knowledge base,” Nussbaum says. “You look to build capacity. You try to build on what you brought in last week and take it a little bit deeper the next week.”
“It’s surprising how much 4-year-olds can learn,” Dorivic says. “Their attention spans are short, but their capacity to replicate what we do is amazing. We try to simplify what we do for them, but we don’t always need to.”
For more information on ArtistCorps, visit uncsa.edu/community/community-engagement/artistcorps/index.aspx .