Laura Eakman knows classical music can seem stuffy and formal. But she wants to change that perception and help more people, especially low-income kids, get access to music.
Eakman, 32, a classically trained violinist, took a position at Manhattan Arts Center about a year ago teaching strings as part of a new program through the center and K-State, the Community School of Performing Arts. Through the job, she’s trying to reach more people, especially young people, and get them interested in playing.
“Having some sort of vision based on knowledge and who you’re playing for and where you’re playing make you think on a deeper level,” she said.
Eakman teaches private lessons and group class in violin and viola for more than 40 students at the MAC in a position that was funded by the Deihl Grant given by the Greater Manhattan Community Foundation. She started playing at age 5 in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois. She studied violin and viola in private lessons and in group classes through her childhood and eventually got a bachelor’s degree in violin performance and subsequently a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
Although Eakman has made a career with the instruments, her family did have to coax her to keep practicing the violin.
“I did not always love the violin,” she said. “I begged my mom and she let me, and immediately when I learned it was hard work I wanted to quit many, many times. But my parents wouldn’t let me quit, and my mom helped me to practice.”
Growing up, Eakman said she wanted to be a dentist, but as she neared the end of high school, she realized that pursuing a career in music was what she really wanted.
“I said I don’t know what else I would possibly do,” she said. “I decided this won’t feel like a job.”
Eakman’s mother was a music teacher and her father an engineer, and she said teaching music brings together the skills of artistry and technicality.
“I really like analyzing exactly what’s wrong and what are the steps I need to take to fix it,” she said.
Eakman received a doctorate from the University of Colorado and then heard about the new position at the MAC. It sounded like a job that matched with philosophies she could get behind. She said it gave her the opportunity to lead a program and control how it is run.
“When I read the job announcement, it was like, this is my dream job,” Eakman said.
One thing Eakman said she was excited to do was build up the Suzuki program at the MAC. The Suzuki method of music education, Eakman said, teaches music like people teach language. She said students in this method start learning at a very early age and are immersed in music and music theory to make it instinctive. Parents are very involved in helping their children practice, and it focuses on maintaining a fun and positive environment.
“Repetition is really important, but there’s not too much getting in trouble for not practicing,” Eakman said.
As a student, Eakman developed a desire to work with disadvantaged kids, which she gets a chance to do at the MAC. Her students come from a range of income levels, including some low-income children who can get scholarships and other help to participate.
Eakman’s interest in bringing classical music skills to these groups came from doing a demonstration at a summer camp that mostly served low-income kids. She realized that money could prevent these kids from getting involved in music.
“These kids could be amazing at violin but it doesn’t matter because they don’t have the money for it,” she said. “I decided that’s an injustice, and I’d like to do something about it.”
Because of the expense of instruments and lessons, there were roadblocks for those children, even though there are some ways it could benefit them specifically.
Eakman said learning about music can help kids like this both emotionally and mentally.
“Many low-income students grow up in very stressful situations and stress has a very negative impact on the brain,” she said. “Focused listening helps to reform parts of the brain that have diminished by chronic stress.”
Penny Senften, executive director of the MAC, said Eakman is good at her craft and also at engaging the young kids she works with. She said this talent for working with children was something the MAC wanted when filling the position.
“It can be difficult to get them to stick with it, but she’s got a great sense of fun and a great sense of what will attract small kids to the violin,” Senften said.
Eakman said she wants to make classical music feel interesting and not intimidating. She said the environment of many classical performances makes the music feel formal or scary, but it doesn’t have to be.
“Classical music concerts can be terrifying,” Eakman said. “Sometimes even as a musician I worry I’m going to make too much noise or cough too much.”
Eakman said it is important to teach some of the norms and traditions of classical music, but she also tries to get her students to put their own take on it. She hopes things like working with guest artists and performing in unusual venues beyond a concert hall can help people feel more connected to the music.
“Having your own take and own sense of expression and, as a performer, deciding how you want things to be played and how you want to present it to an audience already makes it less stuffy,” she said.