Kathy Dressler developed a unique approach for teaching groups of students to play violin over her 30-year career as a music teacher.?
It?s a method she used 15 years ago with underprivileged students in La Crosse, and now that Dressler has returned to the area, she?s coming out of retirement.
All thanks to a wrong number.
Dressler, who started teaching music in 1982, used games and physical imitation to instill good form and prevent bad habits that are nearly impossible to correct later on.
Typically, violin is taught one on one, with the instructor turning the student?s head just so, guiding their fingers on the neck, their grip on the bow.
?String playing is really a pretty physical activity,? said Buzz Hoefer, a former instructor and director of orchestral studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who collaborated with Dressler. ?If you?re leading up front, you need to have exact directions to students. Put your left foot here, your right foot here. She called them fiddle feet. Everything she did was very, very specific.?
In the mid-1990s, Dressler was assigned to Hamilton Elementary for the second time, and noticed the demographics had changed. Many of the children qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, and test scores were suffering.
?The kids just weren?t thriving,? she said. ?I started talking to people. What can we do here??
One day, she got a note in her mailbox from Sheila Garrity, executive director of the La Crosse Foundation. Dressler had no idea who Garrity was, but returned the call.
Garrity had heard that Dressler had ideas; she had money to fund them.
The result was a partnership between the foundation, the school district and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in which Dressler gave string lessons to classes of third- and fourth-graders.
The program was a success by all accounts.
?Teaching in groups, she?s as good as there is,? Hoefer said. ?Their physical approach to their instruments was fantastic ? better than almost any program I?d seen where they were getting individual instruction.?
The kids didn?t just excel at violin; they showed improved self-esteem, as well as test scores.
But in 2000, Dressler moved to the Twin Cities to be closer to her husband, who?d been transferred there for his job.
?It broke my heart,? she said of the decision to leave.
Dressler returned to the area in 2010 after her husband died. When she moved into an Onalaska condo, she started getting phone calls for Lynn Spicer, whose number it turned out was just one off.
She had no idea who Spicer was.
One day this spring, she got a voice mail for Lynn from Steve Koch, a retired music teacher who wanted Spicer to accompany his gospel choir.
Dressler recognized Koch?s name and realized Spicer must have something to do with music. He?d left his number, so she gave him a call and they soon figured out their mutual connections.
?It was a comedy of errors,? Koch said.
Koch knew Spicer needed a strings teacher for her Onalaska studio; he suggested she give Dressler a call.
Dressler said she wasn?t interested in giving private lessons, but she mentioned she had a technique for group lessons if Spicer had the space.
?In a group I have more control,? Dressler said. ?I want a higher degree of performance in the end. I want their setup to be perfect, their tone to be good. I don?t want to be the remedial teacher.?
Spicer said her studio, which she started five years ago, is one of the few with space for 10 kids. And the two music teachers ? each with three decades of experience ? hit it off.
?We connected on every professional level,? Spicer said. ?She?s very enthusiastic and yet strict. She knows what she?s doing.?
Starting this fall, they will offer ?HeartStrings,? a year-long instruction for 20 third-graders.
Dressler said it?s an opportunity for kids to start playing at the ideal age ? a chance to get a head start on school programs, which generally being in fourth grade.
?Third-graders are primed for this delivery,? Dressler said. ?They will be models wherever they go.?
And with group lessons, students can learn for about half the cost of one-on-one instruction. Dressler sees it as a gift to the community.
?I want to give the arts a vitamin B12 shot,? Dressler said, ?provide well-trained leaders.?