The Classical Ensemble That Traded Boston Audiences For Maine Classrooms
Palaver Strings brings music education to underserved audiences.
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Ryan David Brown
Violinist Maya French, cellist Matt Smith, and violist Brianna Fischler sit cross-legged on a tumbling mat in a room full of 1-year-olds at Youth & Family Outreach, a Portland childcare center. They didn’t bring their instruments — they never do on these visits. Instead, they sing a hello song, followed by a string of bouncy buh-duh-bums and cascading nah-nah-nahs. They pass around bean bags and juggling scarves. A boy wearing a “BEST BROTHER” sweatshirt teeters towards Fischler, appears to consider sitting in her lap, then decides instead to wiggle his belly and clap his hands to his cheeks, almost with the beat.
The idea, French says, is to expose kids to a wide variety of tonalities and rhythms that aren’t in “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” because early music education helps with a range of cognitive development, especially language skills. She, Smith, and Fischler divvy up three mornings a week at daycare facilities. Smith also oversees the Palaver Music Center, the whole suite of educational programs put on by Palaver Strings, the classical ensemble of which the three of them are members.
Palaver officially formed in Boston in 2014, but it had existed for a couple of years before as a loose collective of college students playing benefit concerts to help teens in Liberia afford high school. In West Africa, “palaver huts” are gathering places for communal decision-making, and the name made sense for a conductorless, nonprofit music group that counts each of its 13 members as “co–artistic director.”
In Boston, in addition to regular shows, the group performed at hospitals, homeless shelters, and schools. Some of its members recorded personal lullabies with expecting and new mothers, while others helped elderly LGBTQ people compose biographical songs. Then, the group decided it wanted to run its own instructional program. “Music education, for all of us, was hugely transformative,” violinist and community-engagement coordinator Josie Davis says. “It felt like bringing that into what we do would make it complete.”
But Boston’s music-education scene was crowded, and Palaver had Maine connections. The group was playing regularly in Rockport’s Bay Chamber Concert Series. A few members hailed from Maine — French and Davis are cousins, from Belfast and Waldoboro respectively, and violist Elizabeth Moore is from Cushing. Bassist Nate Martin had already relocated to Swanville. So, last year, Palaver made Portland its home base.
Since then, the group has started early-childhood music and pre-K strings programs, plus brought the lullaby-writing project to Maine Med, where three moms they worked with had babies in neonatal intensive care. Last month, they launched After-School Strings. Each student gets one group class and one individual lesson per week, along with a kid-size violin, viola, or cello.
The inaugural class is for kindergartners, and Palaver aims to build the program year after year until it runs through high school. Tuition is pay-what-you-can, on a sliding scale from $25 to $250 per month, based on family income, with options for financial aid. Smith expects that 60 to 80 percent of students will qualify for reduced tuition in any given year, and the group fundraises and applies for grants to help cover the difference. “The idea is to try to get as much diversity in participation as possible,” Davis says, “to welcome people from all backgrounds.”
As for the ensemble’s members, everyone has a side hustle, mostly private lessons and freelance gigs. “Like a lot of working musicians, we piece it together,” Smith says. “But we’re lucky. We get to play music we want to play with people we enjoy playing with, while teaching students who otherwise might not have access to this.”
Last year, during the early-childhood program’s pilot run at Youth & Family Outreach, the center’s staff noticed that, even on days Palaver members weren’t there, kids would spontaneously voice the tunes they had introduced. “We work with a high population of families living in poverty,” says the center’s director, Camelia Babson-Haley. “Music is important for all children, but particularly for our kiddos, because we really want to close that achievement gap. We love Palaver here.”
When French, Smith, and Fischler get up to leave the 1-year-olds’ room, a girl whose hair is gathered up in poofs tries to go with them, then cries when she can’t. In the next room, a quiet 2-year-old in a “FUTURE ASTRONAUT” T-shirt cracks a shy smile and bounces her knee. The last stop of the day is the pre-K room. When the Palaver trio comes through the door, the kids burst into a peal of applause.