by Moira Cullings
ROELAND PARK — When Ashley Stanfield first offered a violin class for students at St. Agnes School here last February, she expected 15 to sign up.
“We ended up with 53 last year,” she said. “It was crazy and fun and chaotic and wonderful.”
This year, more than 30 St. Agnes students are learning the instrument for an hour after school on Mondays.
“I was shocked at the number of kids and overwhelmed a little bit in the beginning,” said Stanfield. “It’s such a nice problem to have.”
Stanfield is a professional viola player who is currently a substitute for the Kansas City Symphony and a member of the Opus 76 Quartet.
The opportunity to share her knowledge with the students at St. Agnes has been gratifying.
“The kids are so sweet and so enthusiastic about it,” she said. “We have a lot of fun.”
‘A really beautiful instrument’
Emma Reyes, a third grader at St. Agnes, was excited to take Stanfield’s violin class “because this is my favorite instrument.”
Reyes had never played violin before she started the class last year.
“It makes a really nice noise,” she said. “It’s a really beautiful instrument.”
St. Agnes second grader Channing Glast also started the class last year.
“Well, my mom said I had to do it,” she explained candidly.
But Glast soon discovered that learning the violin is fun.
She also plays the keyboard and said learning the two instruments is a different experience.
She enjoys playing a string instrument “and seeing my friends and also playing songs.”
The after-school class is mostly made up of first through sixth graders.
Because of the high interest, Stanfield had help last year from multiple volunteers, including St. Agnes music and theater teacher Rachel Lackups.
This time around, she hired another teacher so the class could be split in two. She also has help from one of her own violin students, Polly Ayala, a senior at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park.
“I want to do violin as a career,” said Ayala. “I thought it would be a good learning opportunity, so I did it and I love it.”
Teaching young students has brought back memories for Ayala.
“I remember learning some of this stuff,” she said, “[like] the little songs that you first learn and think of in your head when you’re trying to learn.”
Ayala has enjoyed working with Stanfield, who she said is “a great teacher.”
“She’s so quick to answer questions and understand a piece of music,” she said. “The way that she understands the music in a deeper way than just playing it is really cool.”
A passion worth pursuing
“Music is sort of a lifestyle rather than a profession,” said Stanfield.
It’s been the guiding force for most of her life.
She started playing viola in the Shawnee Mission school strings program around fifth grade.
By age 15, she convinced her mom to let her attend the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, where she spent two years before transferring to the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California.
“The draw was if I went there, I could study with the principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” she said.
Stanfield wasn’t afraid to make big moves for the instrument she loved.
“You get to meet so many different people and so many international people,” she said. “At art school, everybody’s a little bit strange and fun.”
Stanfield’s husband Keith, a native of London whom she met while pursuing her undergraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music there, is also a violin player.
Keith is a cradle Catholic who’s been involved in the Kansas City Symphony, is the first chair violinist in the Kansas City Civic Orchestra and a member of Opus 76.
The quartet has its own series of concerts at the Midwest Trust Center at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park.
It also plays a popular series of candlelight concerts at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri.*
The Stanfields’ son Rory, a second grader at St. Agnes, is learning violin, too, and takes the after-school class with his mom.
“One of the downsides to being a professional musician and performing,” said Stanfield, “is that traditional hours where parents might be able to volunteer for something I’m not available.
“I was looking for ways that I could get involved in the school.”
Stanfield wanted to make learning the violin fun for Rory and offer the same chance for his peers.
“There’s so many nice things about our family’s experience with Catholic schools,” she said.
“I love the idea that it’s possible to still have all the extra activity options that they would have if they went to public school,” she added.
Lessons for a lifetime
Jane Sullivan, principal at St. Agnes, is grateful for Stanfield’s work.
“It is a dream come true to have a professional teach our students,” she said. “Our goal is to develop a love and appreciation for the arts.”
Sullivan said St. Agnes strives to enhance its fine arts department.
“We are so blessed to have a community where each child is given opportunities to develop into faith-filled leaders — to use these skills in whatever path God has planned for them,” she said.
Stanfield said the benefits of learning an instrument like the violin are vast.
“Certainly, having to learn a skill where you have to be calm and quiet and in control of your body and making sure that you’re responsible for your instrument,” she said.
“There’s a lot of autonomy in taking care of things that I expect from them,” she continued, “even the first graders.”
Stanfield said the students learn to recognize pitches, remember directions and express themselves through music.
A goal she has for the future is to apply for grants so the program can be completely free, although it currently offers scholarships and doesn’t turn any child away.
She also hopes her class can participate in outreach opportunities by playing in settings like nursing homes and at Mass.
Although she believes learning the violin can instill numerous values in students, one in particular stands out.
“I think the primary one at this level when we start is that you can do hard things,” she said. “You can do things that seem really complicated, and you can be successful in them if you are willing to keep trying.”
*For the schedule, search KC, then Opus 76, on the Fever app, or click here.