See more of the story

OWATONNA, Minn. – Bubbling youthful energy and polished musical tunes filled the community rooms of four Owatonna senior assisted living centers on a Monday in late January.

On a day that was designated as a school holiday, 19 eighth-grade string students from Owatonna Middle School spent hours performing for and then visiting with 70- to 95-year-olds across their city.

"I'd never been inside a nursing home before, so it was a new experience for me," said Delaney Gomez, 13, a member of orchestra instructor Jennifer Arco Bellefeuille's "morning lesson group" that shared their time and talents with a different generation.

"The older people were so fun to connect with, and it was definitely something I'd do again."

Gomez's sentiments were music to Bellefeuille's ears. A violinist and Owatonna music teacher since 1995, Bellefeuille — and yes, Arco is the Italian word for "with bow" — started the 2023-24 academic year on a mission.

"My mantra this year is 'Community and Connections,'" said the longtime strings instructor.

"I've been working hard at building community within my orchestra program, trying to create memories that go beyond the music, and I'm finding that kids are more invested, more involved and willing to do more outside orchestra experiences as a result."

Bellefeuille applied for a grant from the Peter R. Marsh Foundation.

"The grant is for schools whose students perform at community locations at least three times a year," she explained.

She's directing the grant dollars toward the purchase of string instrument supplies such as rosin, rock stops, bows, music and steel wool (for basses).

"We own more than 50% of the instruments our students use," Bellefeuille said, adding that Owatonna Middle School has about 120 orchestra students in grades six through eight.

Motivated by her mantra and the grant dollars, Bellefeuille hatched the idea of traveling with a smaller student group — the 19 kids who meet with her for lessons at 6:45 a.m. each Thursday seemed the perfect group — to several sites in a single day.

Bellefeuille's students dressed in their best concert black, gathered their instruments and slapped on smiles for a unique concert tour.

At each stop, they set up their stands and music before performing a 20-minute concert set, including favorites such as the Noah Klauss arrangement of "Loch Lomond" and Leroy Anderson's flirty "Blue Tango," arranged by Bob Cerulli.

"I wanted it to be a genuine concert experience for the residents," said Bellefeuille.

After stowing their instruments, the young teens spent another 40 minutes interacting with the residents at each living center — playing bingo at one place, trivia at another, and chatting over light snacks (pie or cookies) at each location.

"I'd talked to the students ahead of time about what it might be like, feeling I needed to 'sell' this experience to the kids, but their behavior was eye-opening," she said.

"They were so empathetic and involved, and they sat down next to anybody, communicated with several adults each and did it with such grace. I was honored to be there with these kids."

Jodi Gasner, Life Enrichment Supervisor at Owatonna's Ecumen Brooks, confirmed that the music students' presence was a win for all.

"We were delighted to have them spend the morning with us," said Gasner. "They played an amazing string performance that we could tell they'd worked really hard to make excellent music, and then played trivia and intermingled with our residents.

"It was a wonderful time connecting with the students, and we made sure to let them know they're welcome back anytime."

A long history

Bellefeuille is proud to be part of what she says is a lengthy history of musical distinction in the Owatonna school district. She and her Owatonna orchestra instructor colleagues Lisa Revier and Sandra Justice contribute to the musical legacies created by Harry Wenger, Roger Tenney, Bruce Wood and Arnold Krueger.

Krueger, now 96, led the Owatonna orchestra program for 50 years. In late December, the city celebrated "Arnold Krueger Day" in his honor — another event at which the local string students performed.

And in October, Bellefeuille, Revier and Justice were recognized when Owatonna Public Schools received the Meritorious Orchestra Program award from the Minnesota String and Orchestra Teachers Association.

"It takes a lot to get an orchestra program to work because there's so much that goes into it," said Bellefeuille. "We're cultivating the understanding of what it takes to raise an orchestra."

At Owatonna High School, Justice leads three string ensembles — the Husky Orchestra, Varsity Orchestra and Symphonic Orchestra. Bellefeuille and Revier strive to prepare students for that next step; in February, 60 Owatonna Middle School students were involved in a solo/ensemble contest, playing for adjudicators from Northfield and Austin.

Witnessing the connections that music and conversation can build between students and community members convinced Bellefeuille that the January excursion was well worth the effort.

"I wasn't sure how it would work to have a 13-year-old boy talk to a 90-year-old woman, but it was such a great experience," she said.

And Gomez — the eighth-grader whose first encounter with assisted living centers involved visiting four of them in one day — found that relating to her audience was easier than she anticipated.

"It was heartwarming to hear them talk about what they expect in the future and what they like about living where they do. They were super sweet," said Gomez, whose own grandparents are 68 and 70 — the oldest people she'd known before Jan. 22.

"And orchestra is my favorite class — after math — because of the beautiful instruments," she continued. "When you put it all together and have the dynamics, the music just comes to life."

Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield writer.