Heads bowed over scores, fingers tapping out the rhythm, eyes darting to the waving baton, children on St. Thomas are learning to create harmony out of cacophony.
At the G-Clef Music Academy you can’t be too young or too old to start. Director James Gumbs said the academy has about 80 students. Most of them are school-aged, but there are some toddlers and some adults. Instruments include guitar, drums, steel pan, piano, violin, woodwinds and brass as well as voice.
“I have a three and a half year-old working on piano now. She’s not playing Mozart, but she’s doing OK,” Gumbs said.
“My youngest student just turned five,” said violin and cello instructor Leah Aronin. When he started taking lessons with her last March, “he had a little teeny, tiny violin that didn’t even look real.” But he knows what to do with it.
Most of the youngest students don’t start on instruments. Rather, they get a sort of introduction to music appreciation. Gumbs said the school is registered with Kindermusik, an international program that uses music to help infants and small children develop motor and intellectual skills as they enjoy movement and interaction with adults. The experience is designed for children and parents to share.
“It gives them some Mommy time,” Gumbs said.
And it can be the beginning of a love of music.
Gumbs’ own life has revolved around music.
“I play the bass guitar. That’s my first instrument,” he said. “I play the piano. I play the guitar. And I’m a voice minor.”
He taught for 16 years in the island’s public schools, mostly directing choirs and bands but also giving instructions in various instruments to many of the territory’s most talented musicians.
“And now they’re playing in bands of their own,” he said with undisguised pride.
When he retired from teaching, he and his wife Gloria started an advertising company, but it wasn’t long before they were drawn back into music. It started with Gumbs agreeing to teach a couple of youngsters who were children of some former students.
“The message goes: Once you start teaching, you can’t stop,” he said. “You become a constant in their life. I started with two students, and then I had nine.”
Pretty soon he and his wife, who teaches voice, decided to open G-Clef.
It now has four teachers and three assistants and two locations, one in Tillett Gardens and the other in Contant across from Gottleib’s Quickway Service Station.
It also has an affiliation with the newly formed Virgin Islands Philharmonic, an orchestra comprised of some of the territory’s best adult musicians and including four 14-year-old G-Clef students.
“We’re going to have a preparatory orchestra” for student musicians, Aronin said. The idea is that once they are ready, the students will move into the Philharmonic. “We want to get all of them in the orchestra. That’s the goal.”
Currently the V.I. Philharmonic has about 20 members and it is preparing for a grand appearance at a formal dinner-dance fundraiser early next year.
The affair features an unusual twist. For the first hour, professional ballroom dance instructors will be on hand to teach interested patrons the waltz, tango and rumba, Aronin said. Then, after a plated dinner, the tables will be cleared, the Philharmonic will take center stage, and “the guests can dance to ballroom music played by an orchestra.”
Proceeds from the event will go towards purchasing instruments for the orchestra and granting scholarships to the academy, Aronin said.
Further information is available online at www.gclefmusicacademy.com.