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Program promotes playing, teaching
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Photo courtesy of EDEN VANING
A young student with Musical Alternatives gets his first violin lesson. People of all ages can learn to play stringed instruments and learn to teach it through the program.
CLEARWATER – For 15 years, Eden Vaning has been putting music back into the lives of young people. But she also takes it a step further. She empowers them to not only learn how to play music but also how to teach it.

When music was taken out of the public school system in the 1990s, Vaning, a concert violinist who was first chair of the Florida Orchestra for many years, decided something had to be done about that. The Florida Orchestra and High Point community in Clearwater also wanted to help the children and get more kids interested in orchestra. At the time, the only options available were busing students all over the county to very limited locations where they could take music lessons.

“Students in Palm Harbor and Clearwater were being bused all the way down to South St. Pete,” Vaning said. “So that’s an hour a day down and an hour a day back up. Now the children need to practice. When do they do their homework? So as far as I was concerned, I needed to find something that enabled any child at any level to be able to play and play well and not have all their time spent on a bus.”

Vaning of Clearwater sat down and wrote step-by-step books that explain everything one needs to know to learn and teach how to play stringed instruments. Vaning, the orchestra, High Point YMCA, and the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin all came together, and Musical Alternatives was born. The Junior League donated instruments, the group began meeting at the YMCA, and volunteers began teaching young students how to play.

“The very first session, I didn’t have any violins yet, so we made them out of cardboard,” Vaning said. “So they came in and they learned how to hold it with the cardboard violins. This one boy, he goes out in the hall after – he was one of the first lessons – and he starts teaching everyone in line.”

Soon, people started coming in for their lessons and Vaning started explaining the parts of a violin and how to hold it, but they said they already know that.

“This kid took what he learned and started sharing it from the very first moment,” Vaning said. “He became a brilliant, brilliant violinist. He got a full scholarship to Interlochen Music Camp and was the first chair viola and first chair violin in the Pinellas Youth Symphony. He’s now married and has his own little kid and his own violin students. A brilliant, brilliant life.”

His life wasn’t necessarily destined for such a direction, though, Vaning said. She later on was told by a police officer that the boy was “in a situation where he could have turned to drugs that month,” Vaning said. “He was in a very, very bad situation. He could’ve gone on drugs, he could’ve gone criminal. But he discovered violin, he made a life for himself, he has his little family now.”

This boy may have been the first student in Musical Alternatives to start teaching, but he certainly wasn’t the last. In fact, the program and Vaning’s books are designed for that.

“This enables any child, 10 years old, 8 years old to be able to teach. So it’s written out, every single step,” Vaning said. “It just walks you through in pictures and clear instruction. So I can take my 10- and 8-year-olds and they all teach. And they teach perfectly. They teach beautifully. Their students are gorgeous. They all use a little teacher’s guide and it tells them the page and what results they are supposed to get.”

The success rate has been phenomenal, she said, she has done presentations about the books for the American String Teachers’ Association, and they are extremely popular for homeschooled kids and people all over the country.

“People all over the country are using these books alone and using the systems and going out into public schools, joining a youth symphony, and a girl in nine months, no teacher, she got second chair in the youth symphony,” Vaning said. “Nine months, just using these books. That’s why it’s so thorough that anybody can teach.”

The students meet on Saturdays at the High Point YMCA, 5345 Laurel Place, with the advanced orchestra meeting at 10:15 a.m. and general lessons from 11 a.m. to noon. Anyone can get involved, whether one has never touched an instrument before to professionals who want to volunteer with teaching and everyone in between.

Vaning puts such an emphasis on teaching because that is what was impressed upon her from a young age.

“When I was a senior in high school, my teacher said, ‘OK, you’ve only learned half of violin,’” Vaning said. “At this point I was playing baroque concertos and he said that the other half of violin is teaching it and sharing it with others. So he took me to a public school and said, ‘Here’s your class.’ I had no materials, nothing. At the end of the year, all my students won scholarships at the local festival, but I had to work out my whole teaching method.”

Vaning wants a better structure laid out for her young teachers, but the lessons and things they gain from teaching are the same.

“I’ve watched sophomores come in who want to start teaching, and they get an adult,” Vaning said. “And the child at first is like, ‘What?’ But they do it. And they learn that they can teach, and they can help, and they can make a difference in someone else’s life. I’ve seen kids come out of their cocoons. They were totally shy and like, ‘What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?’ Well, just read that line (from the book.) And they do it, and the next time they come back and they’re not scared anymore.”

Music also can help catch learning issues outside of music, Vaning said. For instance, a parent of a 6-year-old had come in, saying he has a hard time reading. Vaning put music in front of the child, and he starts off fine but collapses halfway through the line. Through working with him, she discovered that the reason he kept falling apart is because he didn’t understand what “across” means, and in reading both music and words, you have to understand that you read across the line.

“In reading, you have all these words, and the child reads the words,” Vaning said. “… Here, music is like words but the notes have actions that are connected to them. So you can see, where does that action fall short? And then you know where the problem is.”

In a similar case, another young child came in with what his parents thought were behavior problems.

“It’s easy for parents to see they’re acting up and say, ‘Oh, the child is tired,’ or ‘Oh, the child didn’t get this or that,’” Vaning said. “And I realized that with this tiny child, I would say ‘Put your bow on the string,’ or ‘Put your finger down,’ and I finally looked at it and was like, what is a parent doing when they teach? And I kept saying ‘put,’ and I asked the child, ‘What does “put” mean?’ And the child didn’t know.”

After the child knew what that critical word meant, both his music playing and his general behavior took off in a positive direction. Music has changed so many lives, and that has been extremely rewarding for Vaning to watch.

“The thing that I’m the most proud of is the children,” Vaning said. “The attitudes, the grades rising, the self-esteem. Because some of these kids come in and they open up to music teachers where they don’t open up to parents. They’ll tell you your concerns and they’ll tell you their problems at school because you’re their buddy.”

With music training, people develop both their minds and bodies, she said. As they practice and build up the proper muscles and skill, they realize they can accomplish challenges and are capable of becoming what they want with work, Vaning said.

“They honestly learn ways to put dreams out there and realize them,” Vaning said. “So I think above all, that’s what we’re doing. We’re opening doors for children. And families.”

So many family members got excited about the program and wanted to learn to play too that the program is now open to all ages. They have had all ages, from 3 to 90, and they can learn violin, viola or cello. The orchestra plays in the community, from Christmas events to senior nights, to little Mariachi bands.

Cost for the program is free with a YMCA membership or $10 a month without a membership. Visit

Vaning has served as concertmistress or soloist with many prestigious orchestras, including the Eastman Philharmonica Orchestra, the Florida Orchestra, and the San Bernadino Symphony Orchestra, among many others. She has performed with many famous musicians and groups, including Yo Yo Ma, The Carpenters, Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Luciano Pavarotti, Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, and many others.
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