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Volunteen of the Month: Ken Zheng

In some school districts students have access to a wide variety of educational enrichment programs from elementary school onward. Students in the St. Louis Public School District rarely have access to as many of these opportunities.

Making Music Matters, an organization founded one year ago by 19-year-old Ken Zheng, offers a classical violin, piano and Rock 'n' Roll program to inner city students who have no music programs at their schools.

Zheng began the program the summer after graduating high school. Balancing the program with studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Zheng volunteers to teach in the city schools twice a week.

The program’s curriculum is being developed by Zheng and four others who are also accomplished musicians. Adrienne Franke and Aaron Doerr teach and develop a curriculum for the band program.

“The one short hour we have with the students flies by each week,” Zheng said. “At first, I thought I would have to work hard to find material to fill that time, but by the time you get there, greet the students, and set up the stands and violins, there really isn’t much time left.”

Making Music Matters has received support from sources such as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which has donated supplies for the students.

“While our program is fairly small, I’m always on the lookout for ways to expand,” Zheng said. “I wholeheartedly appreciate the support of the Symphony. We’re also looking for more high school and college students to volunteer as violin teachers for an hour a week.”

During first semester, students learned the basics of violin. Second semester, Zheng plans on teaching them more about string-crossing and bow usage.

“In this program, I’ve learned a lot of things,” student Taquerrah Washington said. “I have learned to read the music that I’m playing. It is actually fairly easy. I have also learned how to pluck the strings in order to play the violin. Just don’t pluck them too hard or they’ll snap. I have confidence in my playing ability as well as my ability to make music.”

While teachers and students both enjoy the time they have each week, Zheng believes that Making Music Matters is more than having fun with music.

“A 2004 Stanford University study showed that mastering a musical instrument improves the way the human brain processes parts of spoken language,” Zheng said. “In order to convince the district administrators that the program is worth the effort, we have to show that it’s having an impact inside the classroom as well.”

At the end of last semester, the students performed in a small concert for their school.

“I hope to have at least one concert every semester to encourage the students,” Zheng said. “It’s important for them to see the results of their hard work. This semester, we also want to take them on a tour of Powell Hall to see what classical music is like on a professional level.”

Zheng also wants to expand to more inner-city schools by next year. Check out the short clip below of the Making Music Matters volunteer driven band program in city schools this year.

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