Arts and Entertainment

Musicians sing for love and money on Valentine’s Day

This Valentine’s Day more than 40 local singers will pair up to croon about love at 8 p.m. at the Red Bicycle. And in the best tradition of the heart, all funds raised will benefit the Rock Island String Kollective (RISK), an organization that provides musical instruments and lessons for low-income children.

Pete Welch and Allison Shirk, the masterminds behind Vashon Events, launched Love Duets last year to great success. It returns this year to the delight of islanders and singers alike, not to mention musicians Kim Thal (violin and guitar) and Shane Jewell (multiple string instruments) who over three years ago voluntarily created RISK, a fiddle, folk and rock string orchestra for musicians ages 8 and onwards.

On a gray morning last November, RISK had a chance to show their peers what they had learned through the program. The cafeteria at Chautuaqua Elementary School buzzed with the sound of excited students sitting cross-legged on the floor waiting to hear their fellow students serenade them with tunes from groups like the Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Klezmer, the rhythmic dance music of eastern Europe. Ten weeks earlier, the 10 performers with five guitars and five violins had never touched an instrument. But after rehearsing twice a week before school, these kids were ready to rock their pals with versions of Bylum Cabbage Down and the Early Morning Blues.

Next up came the original RISK group, a mix of ages and string instruments including guitar, violin, viola, harp, bass, mandolin, ukulele, banjo and fiddle led by Shane Jewell and Kim Thal. At Jewell’s persuasive instruction, the audience clapped their hands first on their thighs and then together in percussive unison as RISK fired up the room with their infectious beats. Jewell then donned a washboard for a Cajun favorite and concluded the show with a rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, asking the crowd to join in the singing. Smiles broke out on the faces of students and teachers, with toes tapping and bodies swaying.

Thal and Jewell started RISK as a way to keep music alive for students whose schedules get overcrowded when they enter high school.

“We wanted to bring musicians of all ages and levels together socially,” Thal said, “and include professionals like Ian Moore to join in. We thought this might be a way students could continue to play.”

And play they do, every Tuesday after school at the Minglement. Professional violinist Sarah Perlman joins Thal to initiate a second RISK program for students at Chautauqua, coaching them on violin and guitar Tuesday and Thursday mornings for 40 minutes before school.

“Many of these kids have never had any exposure to playing an instrument and in some cases, the kids have special needs,” Thal said. “We also try to target lower-income families for whom private lessons would be out of the question.”

“We think kids learn better in a group,” added Perlman. “RISK is not a school program — Chautauqua doesn’t have a string program ­—  but the school lets us use the music room and instruments.”

Perlman credits Jody Metzger, principal of Chautuaqua, and Samantha Herman, the school’s music teacher, as two key people who helped make this program possible.

For Welch and Shirk, targeting RISK as a Vashon Events fundraiser became a simple, selfish choice.

“By supporting young musicians, we ensure that we are developing and nurturing our next generation of musicians to perform at Vashon events,” Welch and Shirk said in an email, noting that string instruments are expensive and children move through violin sizes so quickly that it’s necessary for them to rent them.

“Without the scholarship fund, low-income kids wouldn’t be able to afford to play these instruments. ... This is really a win-win situation all around, and we are proud to be a part of it,” he said.

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