By Steven Hoffman
In the fall of 2012, Colleen Jones was contacted by a parent who wanted to sign her three-year-old daughter up for violin lessons.
Jones, who teaches private violin and piano lessons for the Oxford Arts Alliance’s Music Education Program, was highly skeptical about the request, despite the mother’s assurances that the child was quite advanced for her age.
“I normally would not teach violin to a three-year-old,” Jones explained. “It takes a lot more effort to learn the violin than it does other instruments. An average three-year-old is not ready for that. I would prefer that the students be at least five, and for the violin that’s probably still too young.”
Jones agreed to do a trial lesson for the three-year-old, expecting that it would end with the teacher and parent agreeing that future lessons would need to wait a few years until the child had the attention span and the fine motor skills necessary to learn the violin.
“Then Savannah came in and just blew me away,” Jones said, laughing at the memory of Savannah Larry’s first violin lesson.
Savannah, the daughter of Sean and Christy Larry of Oxford, showed during that first lesson that she was not just a good listener, but an adept student. She was understanding concepts that would normally be challenging for a child twice her age.
“So I said we’ll try it for a month or so just to see how it goes,” Jones explained. “And every single week she was amazing. Anything I would try to teach her, she would come back and do it perfectly. It was unbelievable.”
It was apparent to Jones that there was no need for Savannah to wait until she was seven or eight for violin lessons. The music instructor was particularly impressed with how Savannah was able to focus during the lessons, and how well-behaved she was.
“I love having her in my studio,” Jones said. “She's already reading and writing and because of that I was able to start her with playing the violin earlier. She pretty much memorizes everything that she plays. She already acts like a six-year-old or seven-year-old. She has great focus and I think that's from good parenting. Sean and Christy are both such good parents.”
For a half an hour each Monday night, Savannah would show up for her lesson, pay careful attention to what Jones was teaching her, and then showcase her own talents on the violin. For the typical three- or four-year-old, learning the basics—how to position the violin and move the bow across the strings in such a way that it produces the desired sound—might lead to developing the skills necessary to play a basic song like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” with its five different notes, within a year. Savannah easily learned this song and started working her way through the first book of violin lessons. She is learning an Americanized version of the Suzuki-style of violin playing.
Jones reads blogs by other music teachers and she was able to compare Savannah's progress to other students at a similar point. “She learns a new song each week. I will show it to her and then she will come back the next week and play all the notes. When I tell my teacher friends about her, they say that that's amazing.”
Part of the reason for Savannah's success on the violin is her willingness to work at it, which is rare for a child of any age. Jones credited Sean and Christy with helping oversee their daughter's practices at home.
“They practice a lot at home and that makes a big difference,” Jones explained.
Christy said that Savannah has always been enthusiastic about playing the violin, although there have been times when she has struggled, especially when she was just learning the instrument.
“The first few months were hard,” Christy said. “I almost pulled her out. She got frustrated with it because she is such a perfectionist. But I would continue to praise her and let her know that it's just practice and everyone has to take the time to learn.”
Now, she practices four or five times a week and the rough spots are infrequent. In fact, Savannah is so enthusiastic that she's always asking her mom for new opportunities to play for people.
Sean and Christy say that they are astonished at how quickly their daughter learns things. When Savannah was just two months old, she would help Christy turn the pages of the books that she was reading to her. Then the youngster started picking up her favorite books on her own and attempted to read them. By the time she celebrated her first birthday, Savannah knew the sounds of all the letters and was playing letter and number games on the Smartphone. At 14 months, Savannah would sit with a beaded necklace and rearrange the beads into complex patterns. By the time she was two, Savannah was reading Dr. Seuss and other favorite books, speaking in complete sentences, and watching Leapfrog Learning movies. Now at the age of 4, she has already read five chapter books that are at the third to fifth grade reading level.
“She’s also starting to learn multiplication,” Christy said. “She begs me to do fractions. I don’t know where she gets it from. I really don't. She's done everything early.”
Christy said that she's glad that Savannah is studying the violin because it is challenging for her. The idea for her to study the violin came from Helen Warren, one of Christy's coworkers at Ad Pro, Inc., publisher of the Chester County Press.
Jones said that Savannah's skills on the violin are matched by her delightful personality. It is this quality that her mother is most proud of.
“Savannah is very social,” Christy explained. “She's an extrovert to the extreme. She likes everybody. She loves to play and do art projects and have play dates with other children.”
Savannah's also a natural on the stage. Her first performance in front of an audience took place in August when she performed as part of a recital at the Oxford Arts Alliance. She played one song, “Allegro,” with Jones serving as the accompanist on the piano.
Everyone was a little nervous heading into the performance because of Savannah's age, but she handled it like a pro.
“I was really proud of her at our first recital,” Jones said.
Leading up to the holidays, Savannah learned a handful of Christmas tunes in quick order and participated in the concert that the Oxford Arts Alliance’s Musical Education Program put on in the art gallery. Again, the four-year-old wowed the crowd.
She played at her parents’ workplaces and at the Harrison House, a senior living facility in Christiana, Pa. It was the latter performance that proved to be the biggest challenge so far because it was a new environment for Savannah to play in. She overcame her nervousness and turned in a good performance.
At this point, nothing surprises Jones when it comes to her young pupil.
“She's pretty remarkable,” Jones said. “She's advanced and very, very talented. I don't know if she's technically a prodigy because that is so rare, but she is definitely gifted. And Savannah is just the most adorable child ever.”
Savannah underwent a Pre-School Gifted Evaluation and scored extremely high across the board. Her cognitive skills were well above the 99th percentile for her age. In the final report, she was also lauded for her social and emotional maturity. Savannah has met the requirements to be accepted into MENSA, a high-IQ society open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on standardized and supervised intelligence tests.
In September, the Larrys enrolled Savannah at the Sanford School in Hockessin, Del. a full year before she was scheduled to start kindergarten because they want to make sure that she continues to develop both intellectually and socially.
Christy explained, “I chose Sanford because they said that they would develop a program specifically for her where she will be challenged and she will still get the same social skills that she needs.”
Savannah's favorite classes right now are science and art, and she’s learning material that is above her age level.
“She's fascinated by the solar system and the planets,” Christy said. “She knows the respiratory system. She writes in cursive. She loves to draw.”
While the academic accomplishments are impressive, Christy is just as pleased about how personable and kind her daughter is to others. On a recent progress report from school, Savannah was lauded for being the first one to reach out to other children who might be upset.
Christy said that the family wants to make sure that Savannah is consistently challenged and can fully utilize her gifts as she grows up. Savannah is interested in expanding her musical capabilities—she wants to start taking piano lessons. Christy is hoping to delay that until the end of this school year.
Jones said that Savannah is one of those rare youngsters who is so filled with promise and potential that you can't wait to see the adult she becomes.
“I really enjoy having her as a student and I hope that she stays with me a long time,” Jones said. “I can't wait to see what she's doing when she's older.”