Small hands at the ready, big sound bursts forth
St. Petersburg TimesMonday, September 27, 1999
You walk into the rehearsal hall and for a moment, the noise is cacophonous. Then your ear begins to sort out what it is hearing.
From one violin, a fragment of a Christmas carol. From another, the toe-tapping chorus of Rocky Top. From a cello, the lilt of a waltz.
As the musicians warm up, one suddenly stands and asks the conductor, "Excuse me, do you know where my mom is?"
Business as usual at the Tampa Bay Golden Strings Youth Orchestra, where the average age is 9 and the rehearsal space is a living room with the furniture pushed aside.
Conductor Eden, Vaning-Rosen, a middle-age woman with short blond hair and big glasses, taps her violin bow on a music stand.
"Okay, are we ready? Sit up straight pleas. Edges of your chairs. Violins in orchestra position."
Little spines stiffen, undersize violins are held bolt upright on knees.
All eyes are on Vaning-Rosen.
"One, and two, and..."
Violins fly up to small shoulders, bows are raised and - just like that- sound pours forth, rich, full and amazingly loud. No squeaking or sawing.
This is kindermusic, created by 20 or so performers who can't stay late because it's a school night.
This is also Eden Vaning-Rosen's dream come true.
Originally from San Francisco, Vaning-Rosen started her own musical studies in junior high as a student of the San Francisco Symphony's principal violinist. She graduated from the Eastman School of Music in New York and earned a prestigious Performer's Certificate there. Then she spent 30 years performing as a soloist and principal violinist with orchestras across the nation, performing with such luminaries as conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, violinist Eugene Fodor, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, tenor Luciano Pavarotti and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
All through her performance career, every Saturday morning she taught private students, many of whom were very young.
"I want a child to be able to learn music," she says with a radiant smile. "And my whole life's goal was to write a system for teaching violin, in a step-by-step form."
After she retired several years ago from the Florida Orchestra, where she was principal violinist and soloist for seven years, Vaning-Rosen took up teaching full-time.
She studied the classical and Suzuki methods of teaching children to play the violin, and decided she's like her own technique to be different from either of those two.
I give them the physics of how the instrument works, plus a little standard (musical) note reading, fed in tiny, tiny drops," she said. "That way, they understand what they're doing, as they go, and why."
Vaning-Rosen put her method into The Violin Book, actually a series of spiral-bound volumes labeled Books 0 through 4. (Book Five is nearing completion now, with Vaning-Rosen's husband, David, acting as designer, on their home computer.) Each one features simple language directed at young children and drawings by Vaning-Rosen.
Because the pictures make everything so simple, parents, even non-musical ones, can help a child study at home, Vaning-Rosen said. Many students, lured by the drawings, skip ahead of their private lessons and study from the book, she added.
Vaning-Rosen also teaches viola and cello and plans to use her teaching system in books for students of those instruments. Already she has finished four volumes of The Viola Book and two of The Cello Book.
But performing has always been in her heart, so four years ago the Tampa Bay Golden Strings Youth Orchestra was born. Its members all study privately with Vaning-Rosen; their ages range from 5 to 18. Most play violin; two play Cello. Most are ready to join the orchestra after just a few months of lessons with her, Vaning-Rosen says.
Invariably the group amazes audiences, from retirement home residents to Little Leaguers.
"They're an excellent little orchestra," says Bill Lofgren, who has booked them for four years in a row to perform at the Festival of Trees, a holiday event in Clearwater. "Their musicianship is quite phenomenal."
Florida Orchestra resident conductor Thomas Wilkins heard the group play this spring at the High Point YMCA in Largo. Their performance kicked off a youth music program that Vaning-Rosen teaches there.
"They were surprisingly advanced, for the limited amount of time they'd had on the instruments," Wilkins says. "Plus, their attitude was so courageous. They sat there and looked at the audience as if to say, 'We've got something to show you!' "
Wilkins also heard several of Vaning-Rosen's violin students play in the Florida Orchestra's youth competition last year.
"Big sound!" he wrote on the judge's score sheet for one student. "Great!"
Such praise makes Vaning-Rosen beam. She wants her kids to sound like professionals, but also have fun.
"I'm not trying to get a bunch of genius kids, with their fingers flying," she says. "But I want that Vivaldi sound, a rich-sounding orchestra."
Bill Mischler, mayor of Pinellas Park, has heard two Vaning-Rosen students, 8-year-old twins Katie and Kyle McCormick, play The Star-Spangled Banner on violin as an opener for Little League season and at a Fourth of July bandshell dedication in Pinellas Park.
"Honest to God, it blows my mind how talented they are," Mischler says. "They're absolutely great."
There are even plans for a CD. Vaning-Rosen and her friend Ron Raichle, a professional accordion player, are collaborating on the album, which the youth orchestra will record with the Sunshine State Express, a local polka band.
Every Monday evening, about two dozen young string players take their places on plastic chairs in Vaning-Rosen's Clearwater living room. A black cat named Coda wanters through the maze of feet. Accompanist Margaret Douglas sits at a portable keyboard in the corner.
Standing in the center, holding her own violin, is Vaning-Rosen.
Young legs swing in time to the music as the group launches into Rocky Top.
"Remember I said a sea gull is circling over the house?" Vaning-Rosen asks the children. "Well, he can't quite hear you. Can we have some more sound, please?"
The orchestra plays a Spanish waltz, a tango, two Christmas carols and a Willie Nelson ballad, Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain. During each number, Vaning-Rosen has one or two students stand and play a solo, just as they do in public performances.
When it's his turn, 6-year-old Jake Bray scrunches up his face. But he stands, shoulders his violin and plays like a pro.
"Miss Eden!" one child calls, raising her hand. "Are we gonna have a snack tonight?"
One more song, Vaning-Rosen coaxes the musicians, and I'll let you go early.
"Masterpiece Theatre and then you're outta here," she says.
The group plays a spirited version of the PBS theme song. Midway through, there's a commotion in the circle of chairs. One player leaves his seat and sprints for the bathroom.
In two minutes, he's back, strutting proudly.
He has just lost his front baby tooth.