Priscilla Hallberg has a cause dear to her heart. She is on a mission to turn this part of Southwest Kansas into a Mecca for the arts. Her preferred method is through teaching young people to play string instruments, and she believes she is on her way since so many people are starting to take notice.
One day many years ago after a concert, a little boy went up to Hallberg and exclaimed that the violin was the best part of the production. It was a fairy tale re-enacted for a stage musical, the kind of thing where children are expected to notice characters from stories they’ve been told — not string instruments they’ve never heard of before.
Hallberg was stunned by the little boy’s observation and that was one of the gems that sparked her mind to eventually open the String Academy of the Plains, a school dedicated to the teaching and playing of string instruments — violin, viola, cello, and string bass.
The benefits of learning these instruments are far more than just knowing how to play an exotic instrument, Hallberg believes. She points out young people can get extra money playing at parties or such activities.
“If you play and earn $50, it sure beats baby sitting,” she said, adding they do not have to be professional players to earn a little cash on the side.
Situated at 1001 E. Walnut St., the academy holds recitals in September and in May, and Hallberg said the school is looking for as many opportunities to play at churches or any place that will have them. The goal is to show the community what they are doing.
For those who pay to have lessons at the Academy, the charges are $35 an hour, but the academy has children on full scholarship, according to Hallberg.
The youngest student at the academy is 5, but there have been students younger than that in the past. The length of the course can be a few months to many years, depending on how long one wants to study.
“We do some jazz and some fiddling, but that’s mostly just for fun,” Hallberg said. “What we really teach is classical music because, for any kind of music, you still have to read the notes.”
For Hallberg, it is important for students to appreciate that all music is written in notes and a basic technique is needed to play any style. Specialization, another goal of Hallberg’s as she looks forward to the growth of the academy, is key for anyone looking at a career in classical music.
At the academy, which started eight years ago, more than just string instruments are emphasized. Hallberg, a former player in a professional orchestra, has taught piano before, and she said her husband is also learning the mandolin. These are all alternatives that the academy offers its students.
“Usually people will specialize in one style, but there are many people who play classical and also have a band,” she explained, referring to the DePue Brothers, who came to Garden City last year. “We snagged two of them to come and do a master class for the school.”
Efforts to bring big name quartets, like the Harrington String Quartet that will perform Saturday, are a big agenda of the academy. The quartet is known for its performances across the nation and internationally.
Hallberg comes from a musical family, which explains her long history with music. Her mother is “very musical,” she said, describing her mother as someone who wasn’t trained until she was older. “But she’s a fabulous pianist with perfect pitch; she can write anything down and dream anything up and write it.”
Hallberg’s father was a singer with a tenor who also played piano. Hallberg and her siblings all studied music with her sister playing the oboe, and her brother the clarinet.
“My sister is now a well -known composer in Canada, Elizabeth Raum’s daughter is a classical concert soloist who tours the world,” Hallberg said.
The music instructor has a doctorate from Rutgers University and also studied at Juilliard and Indiana University and the University of Iowa, making her a confident, well-grounded musician with much to teach.
Hallberg recalls playing concerto with the Boston Symphony in a youth concert, an early experience that highlighted the importance of regular training for her.
“It was packed with young people. It was the first time I’d played with a major orchestra with an audience that size. When I got up to play, the only rehearsal I’d had was with a string quartet and piano the morning of the concert,” she said. The young Hallberg was blindsided because of the opening tutti — the long passage before the violinist comes in.
The unexpected moment threw the young musician off. She forgot her opening and had to improvise. “I thought of leaving the stage, but that was not an option,” she remembered. “I knew I had to play something; so when the moment came, I had an out-of-body experience, because I played the whole first passage. My body knew it because of the practice I had had.”
Hallberg had a long career teaching classical music and playing professionally. She came to Garden City and taught at the community college for a year before the program was scrapped. Nevertheless, her belief that classical music is the highest form of art made her stay and pursue ways in which she could attract more people to it.
There have been a number of students go through the academy since then. Hallberg is reminded of a boy who studied viola and how shaky he was in the beginning. “He played Santa Lucia, and I accompanied him on the violin. Well he went on in music and got a degree from a conservatory. The last I heard, he was playing principle in an orchestra in Virginia.”
She added: “Music like this is important because if you do not have a population who know about the best music, who will support going to concerts, you can’t sustain it and if that happens in America, then that’s sad.”
Hallberg believes that classical music is a vehicle for sustaining American culture. “Pop music cannot sustain the life of a culture; it is like eating popcorn instead of wholesome food,” she said.
Hallberg’s idea is to have string quartets and train them to play with each other from different cities and towns in the region. Garden City, Dodge and Sublette will be her starting points. Once that is achieved, she believes it will jump-start an interest in string music.
The idea that was born eight years ago is already getting support from the Finnup Foundation, Finney County Convention of Visitors Bureau, the Western Kansas Community Foundation and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.
The Academy has been offered space at the Garden City Recreational Commission to hold a youth symphony but Hallberg said there are not yet enough students from the public schools. “We usually get many home-schooled kids,” she said. They are not yet enough to form a symphony, though they are often more often more open to classical music.
Only the school systems in Dodge City and Garden City have string programs, something Hallberg believes is debilitating for the growth of classical music in the area. Even when all the schools have bands, they do not have string programs, she said.
“Individuals sometimes give money and artists take rock bottom fees to play here,” Hallberg said, adding that Brian Lewis, a violinist who is expected in Garden City next month, is a good example of such musicians.
According to the academy director, however, there is a strange backlash against classical music in America, and she does not understand why. “I think many people think classical music is not authentic to America, but that’s not true,” she defended. “A very great player was Thomas Jefferson, who grew up here in America.”
She went on to explain that European arts may have overshadowed American classical music but that does not take away anything from the fact that America has its own greats. For instance, jazz, which is American, is being incorporated in European classical music, according to Hallberg.
Hallberg has 16 students and her husband handles eight. They both teach one-on-one. “I have five students in Garden City, and I have six in Ulysses and six in Dodge City,” she said , adding that her husband also has students in other cities.
Among the future goals is to attract someone who can take over the school after its founders retire. Hallberg said this is going to depend on the increased interest from the community. If there are more students over time, that would mean enough money to pay someone to do it as a job.
This weekend, the school is hosting the Harrington String Quartet on Saturday at the Community Congregational Church, 710 N. Third St. There will be a master class at 3 p.m. and it will go on till 4:30 p.m. The concert will start at 7 p.m. and end at 9. There will be a reception thereafter.