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Richard Crowson: A Historically Low Note

Crowson self portrait_15.jpg

Have you ever tried to play a violin? It’s crazy hard. There are no frets on the fingerboard, so you have nothing except your ear to tell you whether you are putting your fingers in the proper places. Meanwhile, your other hand is sawing the taught, stretched horsehairs of a violin bow across those very same strings. Horrible, shrieking noises ensue for the first few weeks, or months, or—sometimes—years. The closest thing to that sound I can think of might be something like what would occur if a high-pitched dentist drill was being applied to the teeth of a cat in heat.

Getting sweet, accurate notes out of a stringed instrument with a fretless fingerboard takes years of practice. It also takes a lot of patient love from all of those within earshot of that activity. Nourishment is required. Especially when young children have that violin, or that viola, or that cello, or that bass in their small-fingered hands.

And yet, in spite of the daunting, lengthy learning stage required, Wichita’s Robinson Middle School orchestra just got invited for the third time since 1999 to perform at Chicago’s uber-prestigious Midwest Clinic in December. It’s an international conference to which only a handful of America’s school orchestras are invited. Robinson was the only middle school orchestra. All the rest are from high schools.

But there is a sad note to this occasion. That note was not hit by any of the fine young musicians in Robinson’s orchestra. That note was hit by our school board’s decision to end the fifth-grade strings program due to budget cuts. Robinson orchestra conductor Laura Carpenter doesn’t think their talent level will ever again reach the quality required for such honors as this Midwest Clinic event, according to the Wichita Eagle.

It takes an early start for children to get to such a high level. How sad that we adults have let them down so emphatically. Our ears hear only the anti-tax zealots. A historically low note was just struck in Wichita educational history.

Richard Crowson is not only a editorial commentator for KMUW. He's also a cartoonist, an artist and a banjo player.