Monday, May 21 , 2018, 7:15 pm | Fair 64º


Violin Sounds High Note Amid School Budget Woes


A fledgling program delivers violin instruction to nearly every fourth-grader in Santa Barbara. Its two instructors hope they're just tuning up.


Teachers losing jobs. Schools losing psychologists. Students losing smaller class sizes.

In this era of educational loss, it’s nice to know that despite a historic state budget crunch, every once in a while there’s a gain.

One local example is the Santa Barbara elementary school district’s new fourth-grade violin curriculum.


In late January, the district’s two elementary music teachers launched the program, giving violin lessons to nearly every fourth-grader in town. (Of the district’s 10 elementary schools, only two — Monroe and Open Alternative — aren’t participating.)

The instructors, Karen Dutton and Nancy Mathison, travel from school to school, giving group lessons to entire fourth-grade classes. Altogether, the teaching duo shares a total of 700 students, who each receive an hour of group violin instruction every week.

In one way, this year’s elementary music program is similar to last year’s: instruction begins for students in the fourth grade. But in every other way, it’s different, at least for fourth-graders. For starters, this year the program is no longer voluntary.

Another major difference is caused by an increase in volume. Because the number of fourth-graders has more than doubled, the entire grade learns the same instrument. Last year, fourth-graders could choose clarinet, flute, trumpet or another instrument. (Fifth- and sixth-graders still can.)  Finally, because entire classes learn together, the music teachers no longer must interrupt classes to pull individual pupils out for lessons.


The music teachers chose the violin as the instrument of choice for fourth-graders in part for its hygienic qualities. Teaching the trumpet, for instance, would have required sterilizing 30 mouthpieces after every lesson.

More important, though, the violin is uniquely suited to exercise the brain.

“What the left hand does is very, very different from what the right hand does, so the brain has to do something it has never done before,” Mathison explained.

In fact, the teachers are hoping the music lessons will boost the students’ reading and math test scores. Right now, Dutton and Mathison are on tenterhooks awaiting the release of California’s annual test score results, which are due out in May.


Partly, the teachers want to see their students succeed academically. But their eagerness is also a matter of survival. Largely owing to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the current educational atmosphere is fixated on test scores, and the teachers believe that improved scores would ease their ability to raise money to sustain and expand their program.

“We really need another full-time staff person,” said Dutton. “It’s hard to get money for salaries.”

Mathison said she wishes she didn’t have to justify music through academics.

“There are so many different levels on which this can reach children, and all of them are valid,” she said. “But improving their test scores seems to be the popular reason for doing it now.”

One thing is certain: In this time of economic hardship, the teachers are going to need all the help they can get.


More and more, it appears public education is getting pared back to the basics.

Just this week, the Santa Barbara school board carved $4.1 million out of its $93 million discretionary budget for the K-12 public education system. A year ago, it had trimmed $2.5 million. Next year, it expects to shave another $2 million.

As such, the fledgling elementary music program is a thirsty seed in a time of drought. In the best of worlds, Dutton and Mathison envision it growing to include all elementary grades. But they also realize mere survival could be a struggle. Unlike that of other academic disciplines, their funding comes from a scattered group of sources, most of them from outside the local public school system.


This year, $65,000 — less than one third — came from the district. Another $80,000 came from a state grant. Still another $75,000 came from the nonprofit Santa Barbara Education Foundation, which is dedicated solely to raising money for public schools. But the biggest amount came from the The Orfalea Fund, started by Kinko’s founder and education philanthropist Paul Orfalea and his wife, Natalie.

That grant purchased most of the violins, along with some other instruments.

The grant proposal to The Orfalea Fund was written by foundation executive director Tina Louise Fanucchi, who declined to divulge the exact amount, saying she wasn’t sure the Orfaleas wanted it publicized.


Clearly, the Santa Barbara Education Foundation’s contribution to local music education is vital. In the past five years, it has raised some $250,000 for the cause. Yet, relying on a foundation probably isn’t prudent.

“We’re in the middle of discussions right now about how many more years we are going to continue to raise money for music education,” Fanucchi said.

Still, Fanucchi said she already has a potential donor lined up to expand the program to fifth- and sixth-graders next year.

In a weird way, the new music program rose from the ashes of last year’s budget cuts. About a year ago, Dutton and Mathison were among the long-faced educators watching the school board make deep cuts to the elementary music program, reducing their budget to $65,000 from $247,000.

But at the same meeting, in a show of commitment, the school board decided to re-allocate an $80,000 state grant to the program. It required some finagling, and some sacrifice on the part of the other schools: A portion of the money could have paid for instructors for P.E. and art.

Then, for legal reasons, in order to qualify for the grant, the music instructors had to design a completely new program; it couldn’t simply replace the one being cut.

Thus the fourth-grade violin program was born.

On a recent day, Dutton led a Franklin School class through an hour-long lesson in which they started by holding the bow, and gradually progressed to playing “Hot Cross Buns.”

Franklin fourth-grader Luis Bravo said it’s his “most favorite” class.


“It’s amazing,” he said. Next year, he said he’d like to try the trumpet.

For the time being, music is still voluntary for fifth- and sixth-graders. But Dutton and Mathison hope that soon changes. They believe music-for-all would drastically reduce the “too cool for music” factor that causes many sixth-graders to quit.

“It’s an extremely strong deterrent,” Mathison said. “This way, if everybody in the class is doing it, nobody is being weird. If everybody’s doing it, it’s cool.”

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Supporter

Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >

Meet Your Realtor Sponsored by Village Properties

Photo of Cimme Eordanidis
Cimme Eordanidis
"Since I truly enjoy doing what I do, interacting with people and representing them during one of life's most exciting events is very rewarding."

Full Profile >