Melanie Robinson recently asked one of her young proteges at Snowville Elementary School to stop playing the violin.
That’s certainly not something she typically does. But Robinson realized the student had removed her finger splint in order to run her bow across the strings of the violin she lovingly cradled beneath her chin.
The student was obviously disappointed, but Robinson told her that, from personal experience, she knew how long it could take for a finger to heal if it she didn’t treat it with care. After hearing the reason for Robinson’s concern, the student seemed happy to turn her violin over to another Snowville student who didn’t have hers with her that day.
“They try. They pay attention. They’re well-behaved. They’re enthusiastic,” Robinson says of her Snowville students.
The Pulaski native has been teaching ever since she graduated from Radford University with a degree in dance.
She actually went to RU on a music scholarship. She explains, “I did that for a year, and then they came up with a dance major, and that’s what I really wanted to do. So, I dropped the music and went into dance – and back then, no one was a dance major.”
Eventually, she opened Center Stage Dance in Pulaski and says, “I managed to be fortunate enough to have students all along, and then I hooked up with the Fine Arts Center, which was a good thing.”
She adds, “I made a lot of great friendships at the Fine Arts Center, particularly with Judy Ison who helped me many, many times to pursue different avenues in my dance school. She made it possible for me to do that. She was always available and always helpful.”
The Snowville violin class is an elective that evolved from a Radford string educator intent on getting string instruments in public schools. She heard about Robinson and asked if she would teach the Snowville class, and they’ve been meeting for 45 minutes every Thursday afternoon since mid-January. The school supplies the instruments to the 15 students in a class comprised of third, fourth and fifth graders.
Robinson says Dr. Bridget Parsons, Snowville’s principal, was instrumental in getting the program added as an elective at the school.
Robinson thinks it’s important to introduce children to many different types of music: “What you listen to repetitively as a child, that’s what you’re drawn to as an adult.”
She admits that students are challenged by the violin.
“They’re very confused, excited and impatient in the beginning. Particularly with a string instrument that you bow, it takes a great deal of patience in the beginning to even learn one song.”
Now, just two months after they started practicing the “Star Wars” theme, Robinson tells them they are definitely improving.
One day a week she also teaches violin in Christiansburg where, a year ago, a mother brought by her daughters one day to play violin. The two older daughters tried it, but ended up putting the violin down and walking away. Then their 2-year-old sister, who just happened to be with them, picked up the violin and started playing with a passion. She has been Robinson’s student ever since.
Robinson understands such passion, as she came by it early on herself. Her mother, Jett Pearce, once played clarinet with the Roanoke Symphony, and taught piano classes from their house. She also played saxophone, trumpet and drums at different times. It was her love of music that resulted in her marriage to trombonist Olin Pearce.
“Pulaski had quite a musical community for a while, and even had a federated music club throughout the state … and monthly there was a semi-professional performance by somebody here,” Robinson explains.
Her mother started a band she named A Little Symphony, that played together for four decades. Even Robinson, who plays string bass as well as the violin, was in the symphony. Her mother rewrote music for the 20- to 25-piece band, and borrowed talent from RU and Virginia Tech.
“I was greatly influenced by this,” Robinson says.
Robinson started playing violin when she was 8. In her teen years, she was taught by a former concert mistress with the Houston Symphony who happened to be living in Roanoke.
She was later tutored by a violinist at RU. “He was a former army sergeant, and it showed in his teaching,” Robinson quips.
Today, Robinson plays violin at parties, weddings and funerals.
She once sang baritone with a local barbershop quartet and played with the Old Pros Big Band Orchestra.
Music notwithstanding, she will tell anyone that dance is her passion. “I can’t not move when I hear music,” she explains.
One of her greatest influences was Alvin Ailey, and she even studied with someone from his studio.
She taught pre-school through adult classes at her dance studio that she sold just two years ago. She offered ballet, jazz, tap, clogging, gymnastics, summer camps and a variety of activities related to dance.
She still participants in ballroom dancing.
Landscaping is another one of her passions, and it started after a trip to Hilton Head in the 1980s.
“I was so impressed with the orderliness and the beauty of their landscapes, and that was just starting to become popular.”
So, she returned to Pulaski, dug a pond and made hills in her yard. She has even landscaped for others from time to time.
She says her son Paul’s occupation as lead horticulturist at Virginia’s Tech’s Hahn Garden came as no surprise to her.
“I think helping me landscape is probably where my son got an interest in horticulture, because I insisted he help me with landscaping, and he did, willingly,” she explains.
Like landscaping, music also runs in the family. Her 12-year-old granddaughter, Riley, is also one of her violin students.
Always the teacher, Robinson prepared a letter for parents of her Snowville violin students. The letter instructs them how to care for the violin and bow, and asks them to avoid making their children practice the night before the class because it “only serves to tire out and frustrate the student.”
The letter also clarifies just what learning violin will mean for their children.
“Thank you, parents, for taking advantage of this opportunity to enrich your child’s life,” the letter reads. “Remember that music is a lifelong gift. And playing the violin is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have. The first few months are the hardest. It takes much patience and repetitive practice. Later on, it pays off when you can pick out any song in the book and entertain yourself and others by playing with confidence.”