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Meet Erin Cassel of Newton County Youth Strings

Today we’d like to introduce you to Erin Cassel.

Erin, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I started playing cello around age 4, in Nashville, TN. My sister and I were both parts of the Suzuki Cello Program at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. After going to the University of Louisville for my Bachelor’s in Cello Performance, I moved to Atlanta and received my Master’s in Cello Performance studying under renowned cello teacher Martha Gerschefski. It was while I was doing my Master’s degree that I started my Suzuki Teacher Training with Melissa Kraut of the Cleveland Institute of Music. That first training class led me to develop a passion for teaching little cellists, and I continued seeking out teacher training classes with other life-changing pedagogues such as Gilda Barston and Rick Mooney.

Bringing my knowledge back to my small private studio in Atlanta was incredibly powering, and it led to a connection with a family that would drive all the way from Covington to Buckhead for their 4-year-old daughter to start cello lessons. When they had their second child, the rush-hour driving became too much, and they had to stop lessons. Out of the blue, a year or so later, the mother (Tiffany Whitworth) called me and asked me one simple question that has led to an incredible new adventure: “What will it take to get you to come to Covington and teach my children cello?”

The following two weeks were a blur, as I was introduced to the Executive Director of the Arts Association in Newton County (Buncie Lanners) and immediately began forming a plan with her for how to start a Suzuki Strings Program through their already-thriving organization. Little did Tiffany know that by introducing me to Buncie, our collective creative juices would go into overdrive and we would be able to start a strings program just a few months later!

That was 5 years ago- we started with 9 violin and cello students. Our program now has 20+ students, three teachers, two group classes, and one Performing Group…. and we have so much more planned!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The road to building a successful strings program has been bumpy, to say the least.

Finding an enthusiastic, well-trained violin teacher to join in a somewhat “experimental” fledgling program was the biggest challenge for the first three years. Giving freely of my time and efforts as the Artistic Director of a program that I was determined to make succeed was one thing- convincing another teacher who needs to make a secure living was a different story.

Another huge struggle in developing the program has been balancing the desire to grow bigger faster with the need to have musical/pedagogical integrity and organic growth. It has been a slower road to growth than my impatient personality had intended, but the program that we do have is full of students who are beautiful musicians and people and parents who are dedicated to the program.

Along the same lines, convincing parents who already have their children enrolled in a competitive dance program and/or top-notch choral program (both part of the Arts Association) to buy into a start-up strings program has also been a challenge. Because Atlanta has strings in the schools, playing a string instrument is a very common activity for children and teenagers. Most Newton County schools only offer band, so getting families interested in strings was a new process for me.

The effort to build a strong string program has been difficult at times, but always incredibly rewarding. Just come to one of our recitals and see the excitement in the students” eyes and the pride on their families faces, and you’ll see!

Please tell us about Newton County Youth Strings.
Newton County Youth Strings (NCYS) is a program under the umbrella of the Newton County Arts Association. We are specifically a Suzuki Strings Program, focusing on the total development of a student, creating both beautiful musicians and beautiful people.

Our program encourages parental involvement in lessons and in at-home practice, emphasizes repetition to create confidence and continuity, and fosters a mindset of working hard to achieve attainable goals. We believe that every child has the capacity to learn an instrument, and we work with students of all backgrounds and abilities. I believe that these tenants of the Suzuki Method are what set us apart from other strings programs in the Atlanta area.

I am the Artistic Director of the program, in charge of scheduling and running all recitals, concerts, workshops, master classes, and other events. I am also one of the two cello teachers with the program and direct our Performing Group, which is made up of the more advanced violin and cello students in the program.

Pride in my program comes from the parents and students themselves. They are always supportive, always encouraging, and they inspire me every week to be a better teacher and director.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
My favorite memories from childhood are of my whole family at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. Every holiday was a time for traditions and family time.

The world was put on hold for a whole day- no other commitments, no distractions. Just cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and parents and siblings. Laughter.

Grandmother’s food. And falling asleep at the end of the day in a warm, fuzzy holiday-coma.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Isadora Pennington, Jodi Atkins, Jordan Wright

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