Star Light, Star Bright
The STARS Foundation in Cabool brings the arts to children as young as 4, even those who cannot afford lessons. It’s building budding musicians, from tiny violin virtuosos to Carnegie Hall dreamers. Learn how director Rebecca Peterson is leading the way.
An entirely new kind of star, however, is appearing in the Ozarks. Its source is not a place one would expect to find greatness. But there’s no denying its brightness or beauty.
Rebecca Peterson invited me (and my two young daughters) to see these stars for myself... in Cabool. I’d never been east of Mansfield. Staring down small town exits as I continued down the highway, I suddenly felt very much “in the middle of nowhere.” This is definitely not a place one would expect to find greatness. But I did.
More than 100 children and adults crowd onto Cabool Christian Church’s stage, each with their chosen instrument: flutes, clarinets, violins, cellos, tubas, trumpets, guitars, ukuleles and xylophones. The opening notes of Canon in D are played in perfect unison by kids as young as 4 and adults as old as 73. I am in awe, knowing most of these performers couldn’t play a single note eight months ago. Now, most of them can play as many as five instruments. I look at my 7-year-old, transfixed by the music, her hands clutching her own (broken) violin.
A child piano prodigy, Peterson’s love of music only intensified into adulthood. After writing a successful music curriculum for her five homeschoolers, Peterson began teaching music at their local co-op. She soon noticed others in the community with the desire to play music but without the means to pay for lessons. Always ready for a challenge, Peterson began the STARS Foundation. The response was immediate, enthusiastic and overwhelming.
INVOLVING THE COMMUNITY
STARS, which stands for “Studying, Teaching and Returning Service,” is a fine arts school focused on music, language, theatre and art. It is, quite literally, for everyone. In less than a year, more than 150 people from five counties have joined. There are grandparents and grandchildren, public and homeschoolers, people from various ethnic backgrounds and others with special needs, including autism, blindness and attention deficit disorder. Board member Tiffany Taylor says Peterson sees value in each of them.
In order to flourish, music students are required to take a theory class along with their lessons. While little ones may not understand everything, Peterson says they are internalizing more than people realize. When students arrive, they immediately begin practicing. While Peterson conducts, there is full participation and no talking. Taylor says the disciplined environment is filled with love. “They like being there,” she says. “There are friendships. There’s a feeling of belonging.”
That feeling of belonging extends into the community with the STARS principle of returning service. Although most students are unable to pay for lessons, the instruction isn’t free. Peterson believes investment makes for a stronger commitment. Community service—two hours per month—can be done in exchange for lessons. Additional hours cover the cost of instrument rental. “As the community gives, they see the students give in return,” she says.
While community service teaches about giving back, it obviously doesn’t keep the lights on. Peterson spends a great deal of time writing grants to pay for operational costs. Board member (and music-lover) Vanetta Sponsler owned and operated The Cranberry Merchant, a popular retail store in Cabool, for many years. Today, instead of clothing and gift items, The Cranberry Merchant is filled with budding musical stars. Yet Sponsler continues to pay the building’s fees. “I’m all about backing her program,” she says. “Everything she does… it’s so incredible.”
The concert, in spite of the foundation’s own monetary needs, is performed as a cancer benefit. As students play and the choir sings, pictures of those affected by the disease are displayed. The room feels emotional yet triumphant. A little boy with difficulty concentrating has waited patiently for his solo. His eyes are locked onto Peterson with intensity. He plays perfectly. His contribution is simple yet monumental.
In order for this group to play together, Peterson writes each group’s arrangement herself, according to their ability. Some do simple melody while others play more advanced arrangements. Playing with advanced students teaches younger ones to hear the music and helps them see what they are working toward.
The advanced students also assist in teaching. “You’re basically allowing the student to absorb what they’re capable of absorbing,” she says. “And as they learn it, they apply it, and then they teach it.” Peterson says it’s often while teaching that students internalize concepts for themselves. Peterson’s most accomplished students have studied with her for just 18 months and play at an advanced high school level.
MORE THAN MUSIC
The school focuses on several other fine art disciplines, including art, theater and language. Whether painting or origami, the focus in art is simply to allow kids to express themselves. Peterson also teaches sign language while her husband, Matt, teaches Spanish. They hope to offer other languages, including Russian, in the future.
The STARS theater program earns high praise with every performance. From professional costumes to a full orchestra, productions like Wizard of Oz and Jungle Book are done with excellence. And, they are done with everyone. “We never turn anyone away,” Peterson says. “Everyone that auditions gets a spot, whether it’s stage crew or they’re moving prop or they’re background people.”
Unfortunately, finding a place for everyone is becoming more difficult. Students share music stands and even chairs. The Cranberry Merchant is quickly being outgrown. So are most of the local stages. Peterson’s vision for the future is filled with space, supplies and students. Her dream involves restoring three buildings across from Cabool’s city hall into a performing arts school, theater and soda shop.
Tonight, we are in Cabool Christian Church. The last climactic notes are played as tears fall and people rise to their feet in applause. The students smile, their faces beaming with pride.
After a large group of volunteers help load all of the instruments to take back to The Cranberry Merchant, Peterson takes the time to fix my daughter’s violin. I ask about the future. Twenty years from now she hopes to take all of her former students from Cabool to Carnegie Hall. After witnessing the STARS, the only thing hard to believe in her statement is that it would take that much time.
Stars. Bright and beautiful, to me they bring a picture of my little girl, clutching her beloved violin in the backseat on the way home from the middle of nowhere. They bring to mind the picture of Rebecca Peterson, bright and beautiful, providing inspiration to so many with her noble and unrelenting musical passion. And they bring to mind a picture of 158 students learning greatness in the fine arts.