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Summer Issue 2010

Fiddle or Violin, Academy Makes Music

by Rachel Coleman

It doesn’t meet in a conservatory or traditional studio, but when String Academy of the Plains is in session, all you notice is the music. For two years, former Boston Pops Orchestra violinist Dr. Priscilla Hallberg has taken her music instruction show on the road from her base in Garden City to workshop sites in Satanta and Sublette.

On this particular Thursday, a group of violin and cello players gathers for youth ensemble practice at the Nazarene Church in Sublette. Down the hallway of Sunday School classrooms, the hum and flourish of violins being tuned rises above the low, rich thrum of a cellist doing the same. The clatter of music stands and bits of conversation punctuate the pre-musical noise as students ages 8 to 18 prepare to play.

When conductor and instructor Hallberg calls out, “Someone give me an A,” the sounds resolve into one unified note, and another string ensemble rehearsal begins.

Hallberg plays along, periodically stopping to adjust a younger student’s tuning or count the rhythm for a tricky syncopated Bohemian dance by Antonin Dvorak. At times, she pauses to offer bits of music history.

“You know, Dvorak was a country fiddler when he started out,” she says, “and he played the music that the people around him liked. So in that way, his music is really something we can relate to, here in Kansas.”

In preparation for the spring recital, Hallberg’s students work through another folk dance, “Happy Tune,” composed by Hallberg’s mother, Elizabeth Hodges, and end with a rousing piece entitled “Fiddles on Fire.”

The blend of classical and folk music offers a gentle introduction to the canon of Western music literature, which Hallberg believes is a critical part of a great civilization.

“I’ve never been a musical snob,” she said with a laugh. “I like fiddle music and folk culture, and I teach my students to play both — but I know it’s a crime to ignore classical music. It represents the very best of our culture, our heritage, our beliefs. Without it, there’s a kind of poverty of imagination and an inability to enjoy the finest things in life.”

Hallberg’s journey from her hometown of Boston to the wide-open plains of Kansas unfolds a bit like that of Dvorak, who left his native Czechoslovakia to teach and compose in the United States. His tenure in the New World led to the composition of Dvorak’s most famous symphony, but his time here was also marked by a generosity of spirit. He championed talented young musicians who did not have the financial means to pursue music. He acknowledged spirituals and slave songs as legitimate music. Most remarkable of all, he reveled in the free spirit of America. Rather than imposing European ideas on his host country, Dvorak said, “there is more than enough material here and plenty of talent.”

Hallberg echoes those ideas when she describes the winding path that brought her to Southwest Kansas.

Originally from Boston, Hallberg began violin studies early with concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, Joseph Silverstein. She later studied with world-famous teachers at Indiana University, The Juilliard School of Music, Boston University and Rutgers University, where she earned a Doctorate of Music. Hallberg met and married fellow musician and instructor, trombonist Gordon Hallberg, and the couple embarked on life together as musical gypsies — not unusual in the world of music academia and professional performance. They worked in Canada, Texas, Washington, Iowa and now Kansas. Everywhere they went, Hallberg said, she saw music programs struggling to survive. Yet there were also promising young musicians and dedicated older ones unwilling to declare serious classical music a lost cause. The tension only fueled Hallberg’s commitment.

“You know, some people think there’s a bias in rural America against culture, but I’ve found there are many people here who believe in music,” she said. “In America, we have the best of everything, in industry and invention — and that should include music instruction. We shouldn’t settle for a pointless culture and a decaying society that doesn’t value things we once considered to be important.”

“I don’t want to live like that,” Hallberg said, “and most parents want something better for their children, too.”

With a zeal she jokingly describes as evangelistic, Hallberg joined with two Southwest Kansas mothers, Kim Miller and Charity Horinek — to establish String Academy of the Plains as a non-profit organization. The group’s vision is to develop a regional community of musicians of all ages who play violin, viola, cello and string bass. The Finnup Foundation of Garden City provided startup money; the academy’s long-term goal is to offer financial assistance to students who need it.

Hallberg’s efforts are not confined to the fall and spring semester teaching sessions in Satanta and Sublette. She offers individual lessons in her home studio, and she is an active artist on touring rosters in Iowa and Kansas. In addition to violin concerts, she also creates multimedia art programs for schools and communities, combining art masterpieces with stories, folk tales and violin music. One program focuses on ballet, another explores Russian fairytales and a crowd-pleasing American presentation brings together familiar poetry, music and visual art. The last, she noted, represents her desire to meet audiences “where they live,” engaging them with “a complete sensory immersion in the arts.”

As she wraps up the youth ensemble rehearsal, Hallberg polls her young musicians: “We have enough time left to play one more piece, and you can choose. What would you like to play?”

The response comes in unison: “Fiddles on Fire!”

The violinist from Boston raises her baton, and the music begins.

For more information about String Academy of the Plains, contact,,, or visit the organization’s website:


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