"More Violins — Brighter Futures."

This motto has become a reality for nearly 200 children who have been members of the Gifford Youth Orchestra (GYO) since it was launched in 2003.

To give some history, the eastern Florida community of Gifford became home to black Dodgers players during the days of segregation when neighboring Vero Beach was the team’s spring training site. After that, many of the services once found in Gifford dwindled, including music — in all of the schools.

Prior to the GYO program, which provides violin, cello, viola, voice and piano lessons to interested youth in the area, a large number of students didn’t have exposure to classical music, much less the opportunity to play an instrument until high school.

Now the nonprofit community orchestra fills the gap for those who attend schools that lack a music program.

Giving tools to at-risk children, primarily those who face the possibility of being caught up in a cycle of poverty, is GYO’s main objective. Classical music has become the means.

Orchestra members at their annual concert with Music Director Joan Haar (far right) who has been with the orchestra since its inception in 2003, and Dr. Crystal Bujol, founder (far left).

The youth orchestra boasts an excellent success rate — currently all of its high school graduates enrolled in or have graduated from college. The benefits have had a ripple effect on their families as well as the greater community.

Challenging instrument builds sense of accomplishment

"One of the great joys of being a part of this project is watching these young children learn to play very difficult instruments," shared director and founder Crystal Bujol in an exclusive interview. "It’s amazing to see them pick up an instrument, sail through instructions and start to play."

"New students start out saying ‘that’s too hard!’ But that turns into ‘What else do you got?’ within a short time," Bujol adds.

The challenges unique to learning to play a string instrument with a bow are commonly known among musicians. Among them, developing the muscle memory necessary to apply the right pressure and speed with bow as well as coordinating the hands as they perform distinct movements simultaneously, blogs Megan L., a San Diego-based musician.

When these young musicians begin to perform their self-esteem grows exponentially. This is true even for those students who are shy — they don’t want to be alone but they want to be on the stage.

"Performing is the apple that dangles for the children, they love to be on the stage!" she claims. "For those students who don’t have access at their school, our stage becomes greater inspiration."

Playing musical instruments leads to accomplishment in other areas

Self-discipline, problem solving skills, concentration and perseverance — qualities facilitated by learning to play a musical instrument — are key to enjoying success in other important areas of life. The youth who have become part of GYO also make strides academically and in extracurricular activities.

One high school student gained the self-confidence to join a National Toastmasters club after being a part of the orchestra’s Jr. Toastmasters. She went on to win a state championship.

Another graduate of the program worked for GYO and another job for two years to save up for a $4000 violin because of the sound this instrument could make.

Along with the children who have risen to the top and become part of the orchestra, the program has proven highly valuable in promoting independence and emotional balance for children who don’t necessarily excel musically.

For students who have ADHD or face other challenges emotionally, mentally or academically, Bujol has witnessed how being a part of GYO has helped them progress in meeting these challenges or as she puts it, "ironing out the wrinkles in their lives."

Learning well enough to teach others

In addition to learning to play and eventually performing as a part of the orchestra, many participants have also gained the powerful experience of teaching their peers, younger children and even senior citizens.

Initially students begin to teach less experienced classmates by example. When the more experienced students move up to a higher level class, they are trained to become tutors, and earn a small salary! Bujol has noted how those who remain in the GYO — the new best players — become more invested in coming into class and staying on top of their game to set an example for the new kids who enter.

Crystal Bujol with Diamond Doby (far right) and her tutor, Sukesha Crosdale, (center) who is a GYO graduate attending University of North Florida and teaching children age 3-6 to play the violin. Here she is with one of her graduates during spring break, visiting the GYO to talk to students about college life, and give a tutoring class.

"It is a typical ‘each one teach one’ experience. As I teach, I am reminded of what I learned. As I am reminded, I have more to teach. The best performers graduate. They are replaced by younger students who then become the new best performers! It is glorious!"

There are also cases where students are so enthused that they ask others to show them how to do more difficult things after class. Of course, the more advanced students respond, proud to show all that they know to these students.

One of the program’s challenges, finding qualified teachers has revealed its silver lining in terms of giving students and graduates the opportunity to teach.

As Bujol puts it, Gifford is not a place that attracts a lot of cultural arts, there’s no pool of teachers so it’s especially hard to find string teachers. One way GYO has dealt with this issue is to hire older more experienced students help teach the newer students.

"But this doesn’t happen until they meet the approval of our music director, Joan Haar. She makes sure all of our beginning string students receive a strong foundation of fundamentals. She insists on making sure they learn the basics of good posture, fingering, and holding the instrument and bow. Not until she is sure the beginner has learned these fundamentals and the tutoring student can continue teaching them will Ms. Haar allow student tutoring to begin," Bujol continues.

At one point in the program’s history, there were classes for senior citizens taught by GYO students. The students did a magnificent job as teachers and gained confidence as they shared their knowledge with the older adults.

Meanwhile, the senior citizens loved learning from the children and were able to see firsthand how their donations made a significant difference in the children’s lives.

The special role classical music plays

"Being introduced to classical music is very important for these children," explains Bujol. "It is different from what children around them are listening to — that music has value but comes from the agitation of society. We’re able to add to their choices other genres of music that can build a bridge to a world of peace beyond words."

"The youth in GYO are able to speak the language of classical music, prepared by our education program to participate on an equal skill level in high school, college, and other symphony orchestras. There’s no need to tell these children to avoid gangs, they just do. This is how involvement with classical music helps change the trajectory of their lives — and confirms the words of our slogan, "More Violins — Better Tomorrows!"

Boundless energy by the GYO: Trio members Luke Pelt, Jada Alexandria Powell, Rebekah Dougall. They played chamber music for 90 minutes as guests arrived at the Vero Beach Grand Harbor Golf and Beach Club for the GYO's Annual VIP Event before performing with other musicians as part of the evening's program.