Fort Collins Magazine Article, Summer 2016
Off the Hook Arts, Executive Artistic Director and violinist, Jephta Bernstein brings her love of chamber music into the lives of students and the whole NoCo community, one note at a time.
It’s Wednesday afternoon at Laurel Elementary School, and the second grade classrooms are eerily quiet as the students write in their journals. Suddenly, there’s a knock on one of the doors, and two students, a brown-eyed girl and a shy, rusty-haired boy, snap up in their chairs. “Yes!” the girl whispers, tossing her black braid behind her back. She doesn’t even have to look to see who’s there, because she already knows. This is one of her favorite times each week. Violin practice.
Outside the door, the students greet their coach, Jephta Bernstein, and head to the music room, where they remove their violins from their cases and perch on their chairs in front of their music stands. Bernstein, with her lilting voice and easy manner, leads the students through a couple of warm-up exercises—fiddle tunes they already know—and then dives into a lesson in which she builds on how to associate what they’re doing with their hands, with the five lines of the music staff. Finally, to stretch the students, because they are always hungry for more, she says, “Okay, now let’s compose our own song.” The students nod hesitantly and she encourages them along as, one at a time, they choose the next note to play. Before long, the children are beaming. “This sounds like a real song.” exclaims the boy.
“That’s because it is!” responds Bernstein. Her eyes shine, reflecting the passion she feels inside. She loves to be a small part of this thrill.
The truth is, Bernstein starting this whole coaching thing on a big note of hope. A trained violinist who grew up in Fort Collins and loves playing chamber music, she lived in Austin for several years, where she was involved with a program called Chamber Music in Public Schools (CHAMPS), which brought musical instruction into low income schools. She saw firsthand how learning to play an instrument taught kids to stay focused, be present and unleash their creativity, plus she got hooked on the wide body of research that cites the benefits of musical training in kids, such as children who have completed two years of instruction have a stronger neurophysiological distinction of stop consonants, a neural mechanism linked to reading and language skills.
When Bernstein moved to Fort Collins five years ago, she sorely missed CHAMPS and didn’t see a program like it in place, so she began contacting orchestra directors in schools just to gauge their interest. They were enthusiastic. Encouraged, she starting volunteering her time and expertise at a few schools, including Laurel (which has a fabulous Suzuki violin program that provides lessons and loaned instruments for interested students), Ridgeview Classical School and Fort Collins High School. She started with about 30 students, working with them once a week in small ensembles, beginning to teach them how to read music, and holding a recital for all students at the end of the semester. “It’s amazing how quickly they caught on and were able to hold their own part,” she says. “Students were excited. Teachers were supportive. Parents got to attend the recital with kids from all schools, and then it became a growing community.”
In 2012, Bernstein decided to make things official and founded the nonprofit Off the Hook Arts (formerly called Project Youth and Music Chamber). To raise money, she organized a summer chamber music festival, inviting the prominent Bruce Adolphe, lecturer and founder of the family concerts at The Chamber Music Society in New York City (and he’s also the Piano Puzzler on American Public Media Radio), and managed to raise nearly $20,000.
These funds have allowed Bernstein to gather and pay a professional cadre of coaches, who’ve expanded their free in-school services to six elementary and middle schools in the Poudre School District. They also run a flourishing AfterSchool program, in which string players, woodwinds and pianists in grades 4-12 from the whole NoCo region gather once a week at Ridgeview Classical School to “see what other kids are doing, and make music on a higher level,” says Bernstein. These students get to work with top-notch coaches one-on-one, and when they perform at the end of the semester in their recital, Bernstein notes that they “are such stronger musician s– they noticeably grew during the semester.” Although the AfterSchool program is fee-based, Bernstein says they gladly accept all students regardless of income level through a well-funded scholarship program.
Bernstein also coordinates an assortment of community events, including a five-day summer camp for kids, ongoing summer and winter music festivals, and a whole host of prominent visiting artists, and admits that sometimes she feels like she’s “treading water” just trying to keep up. But her energy is boundless. Moving forward, she and her team plan to continue to fill in gaps in the Noco region. “We want to be part of the conversation as our community responds to the constant and continuous needs in our growing culture,” she says. “We believe in what we do, and will always keep our doors open for anyone who asks for instruction, at any income level,” says Bernstein.
Off the Hook Arts graciously accepts donations, in-kind gestures, volunteers who want to hold concerts in their home, and advertisers for their printed programs.
June 15-July 2: Off the Hook Arts SummerFest
The 5th annual festival will highlight revolution and evolution, with myriad events, including live performances by the Miami String Quartet, pianist George Lopez, and guitarist Elliot Fisk (who will also lead a workshop for all genres and levels.)
June 28- July 2: SummerFest Music Workshop—For kids still time to register in early June (by June 10)
For more information on all events, and for ticket and registration information, please visit www.offthehookarts.org.
Art Contact: Jephta Bernstein, 970-305-2261