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Spoleto Festival Hopes to Inspire Children through Music

Chamber Music musicians plays for kids at Sanders Clyde Elementary School in downtown Charleston
Victoria Hansen
Chamber Music musicians play for kids at Sanders Clyde Elementary School in downtown Charleston

Chamber music and children may seem like an unusual combination.  But don't tell that to Geoff Nuttall.  The director of Spoleto’s Chamber Music Series works a room of fourth and fifth graders like the strings of his violin, with charisma and class.

“Music has been such a huge part of my life, said Nuttall.  “If there’s any way we can just open the ears and the eyes of a few of these kids it would be a great thing.”

Unlike his mostly affluent Spoleto audiences, the kids at Sanders Clyde Elementary, a title one school, are largely from low income families.  They’ve likely never seen a live performance with five string instruments and a flute before.  The music resonates across the school’s gymnasium and even fidgety children are wide eyed and curious.

The impromptu concert is part of  Spoleto’s community outreach and education program, serving the city it has called home for more than four decades.  “I know that an introduction to the performing arts at a young age can certainly be life changing,” says Festival General Director Nigel Redden.

Dressed in rolled up blue jeans and red, suede boots, and sporting spiky hair, Nuttall engages the kids with a guessing game as he introduces the tools of his trade.  “Which of these instruments do you think will sound the highest?”

The children giggle and some hold their ears, as Tara Helen O’Connor plays a piccolo. They’re learning how the size and shape of an instrument determines its sound.  Nuttall tells them the bow he slides across his violin is made from the tail of a horse.  He has their attention.

Nuttall engages the kids, much like his own audiences, with passion and a few surprises. The music may be centuries old, but he knows having the students hum along or play games like finding the melody not only gets them involved but gives them a sense of ownership.  They become part of the music no matter the genre and that he says, can be moving.

“A great rap tune can make you think and make you dance and make you tap your feet,” he says.  “A great opera can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and make your cry.”

He’s gracious with his time and violin as several kids stay after, holding and with help playing a very expensive instrument.  Nuttal laughs when asked if its maker would be so laid back.

“He’d be cool if it got a scratch from a kid in Charleston."

A couple of the kids are pretty good, gliding the bow across the strings.  They later ask their teacher how to get a violin.  Nuttall smiles.  He’s clearly digging the moment.

“It was cool to watch their little brains get around what was happening in their hands.”

He’s sharing more than a lesson, but a connection through music.

“It’s the combination of the body and the mind and emotion.  It’s just the best thing.”