Strings tie close-knit musicians to passion

"One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four."


Lois Akins counts out loud while tapping her baton, demonstrating the tempo she wants from the 20-odd violinists who will perform Handel's Messiah the next day.

"Your dynamics were good today," she said. "Please continue with them."

She talks to them about problem areas in the piece, reminding them to sit up straight in their chairs and to act like the skilled musicians they are.

"I want (the audience) to go, 'Can you believe those were kids up there?' " she said.

The violinists are kids, in fact, ranging from seventh to 12th grade. They are senior ensemble members of the Suzuki Strings of Augusta, an organization dedicated to encouraging young strings players. While many their age would roll their eyes at the pages and pages of complicated notes, these teenagers' foreheads wrinkle as they try to tackle the intricacies of Handel's Baroque oratorio.

Joseph Anderson's mother, Phyllis Anderson, is the director of the Augusta Chorale, the choir performing the Messiah with Ms. Akins' group. Joseph has taken violin for 14 years and credits Ms. Akins with instilling in him a love for fine music.

"She's the best teacher ever," he said. "She never lets you give up."

Ms. Akins teaches 45 students now and more than 175 in the Suzuki Strings Association. She has taught music for 33 years from her home in Grovetown.

Joseph, having taken from Ms. Akins since he was 4, considers her a part of his family.

"In the summer, when I don't take lessons regularly, I still have to come and take from her," he said. "I miss her that much."

The Augusta Suzuki community is very close-knit: with bimonthly group lessons and frequent concerts, Suzuki families spend a considerable amount of time together listening to their children play.

The Suzuki method begins when the child is very young, so kids grow up together as they progress.

Suzuki teaches using the "mother-tongue" method, believing that music should be taught the same way native languages are. Children listen to songs for weeks before playing them, focusing on musicality, interpretation and phrasing long before learning to read notes.

"We teach the child first, then music, then the instrument," Ms. Akins said.

Because of this, the relationship between the teacher and student is close. Most students take weekly lessons lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, adding up to hundreds of hours of one-on-one instruction over the course of their time with Ms. Akins.

Mary Sheen's son Matthew took from Ms. Akins for eight years. He now plays in the student orchestra at Clemson University, where he is a freshman.

"It's been like family to me," Mrs. Sheen said of her family's relationship with Ms. Akins.

After Matthew graduated and the weekly private lessons ended, Mrs. Sheen felt the void.

"At one point I said to Lois, 'I'm just going to show up here every week because I miss you.' "

Matthew learned much more than violin from Ms. Akins, she said.

"She's taught him beyond music," Mrs. Sheen said. "She puts her heart and soul into it. It's her passion, and it just shines through."

Her dedication has paid off: Ms. Akins has students in music programs across the nation, playing in student orchestras at Yale, Furman, Georgia Tech and Duke, to name a few. The principal second violinist in the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, Eliza Hesse, is a former student of Ms. Akins.

Back at the rehearsal for Messiah, the students agree that taking violin from Ms. Akins is about much more than music.

"She's very understanding," Joseph said. "She's very supportive, not just in music, but in everything."

As the rehearsal comes to a close, the students talk about their performance and seem pleased with it.

It's this, seeing students enjoy music and continue with it in their adult lives, that makes all the hours of effort worthwhile, Ms. Akins said.

"To have them come back and say, 'I'm still doing it, I'm still loving it,' " she said, "that's what is fun."

Reach Gracie Shepherd at (706) 724-0851 or