Cello player and South School third-grader Jarrett Amirault (second from the right) sings along as the students play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" at the Andover Public Schools All-String Concert held at the Collins Center.

Six years ago, music lessons were taken out of the school day.

For this year at least, they have made a comeback in third grade. While Assistant Superintendent Marcia O'Neil said plans for next year are not yet set, educators hope the trend will continue.

Last Thursday, 230 third-graders tuned their violins 230 third-graders tuned their violins, violas, bass and cellos in the Andover High School cafeteria -- preparing to take to the Collins Center stage for the first time as part of the townwide Andover Public Schools All Strings Concert.

Wearing a white Oxford shirt and long, black skirt, Una Real tugged at the pink scarf in her hair as she tucked her violin under her chin. How long did it take her to learn her favorite song, Beethoven's "Ode To Joy"?

"Two weeks, maybe?" the West Elementary School third-grader guessed.

"What this is all about is the school day being too short," O'Neil said. "With state assessments, we need to protect that core instruction time. That became a challenge."

Wanting to offer students more options, a third-grade beginning string program was piloted at Sanborn Elementary School last year. After a successful year, it went districtwide -- offering all third-graders an additional music class of their choice.

Though third-graders already play recorders as part of the curriculum, they could now select an additional music class during the day -- either an extra period of recorder-playing or the option of learning a string instrument.

Students from the district's five elementary schools participate in the program.

"Students were very interested," O'Neil said, adding that about half the district's third-graders chose string instruments rather than recorders.

Other music lessons continue to be offered throughout the district on an after-school, for-fee basis.

"Even though they dropped the in-school instruction, kids still take lessons privately," said district music teacher Sally Lincoln-Vogel, adding that the middle-school curriculum offers an orchestra elective during the day. There are elementary and high school orchestras as well.

"But this is an effort to reinvigorate the (in-school) program," Vogel said. "This is the first time they're all playing together. This is a gala for them."

For the past year, third-graders in the program have attended a weekly, 45-minute lesson during the school day. Their lessons are based on the Japanese Suzuki method, Vogel said, emphasizing that the children learn by ear.

"The little kids aren't learning notes just yet," she said.

Preparing for his debut, Sanborn third-grader Ben Colecchi and his mother, Kathy, shuffled into the cafeteria, violin case tucked under his arm and hair combed into place.

"I like learning new songs," said Ben. He said he'd been practicing for five minutes to a half-hour at a time, a sly smile stretched across his freckled face.

"Tell the truth, now," his mother said, kidding.

"It's a great program," Kathy Colecchi said. "It's really enriching for them."

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