Violin instructor teaches kids, truck drivers

Published 10:38 pm Friday, January 22, 2010

Thorsby resident Julie Slama insists when doctors perform an autopsy, they can tell if a person ever studied music due to an enlarged frontal lobe.

“For an ordinary person, it’s the only field of human endeavor that requires every area of the human brain to fire simultaneously,” she said. “You’re working in nanoseconds. Your emotional center is moved by the music. Reflexes, muscular control, temporal lobes, aural memory. Every single part of you is involved.”

Slama teaches violin and viola to students young and old. Her youngest student is 4 years old and her oldest is a 60-year-old truck driver who wanted to learn fiddling.

A Florence native, she performed as a violist for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra for 20 years. She lived in England with her husband for nearly five years before returning to Alabama.

“I teach anyone who wants to learn,” she said. “I don’t mind teaching adults. It’s just a question of their having enough time to devote to practice.”

“ If they have the practice time, there’s no reason an adult can’t learn to play.”

Children are different. In early lessons, it’s a slow process for the youngest ones. She starts them off with finger exercises and teaches them how to read music before they progress into even the most basic scales.

“Children under 7 don’t have the fine motor muscles in their fingers yet,” she said. “You have to take it slow. That’s why they’re always spilling things and falling down.”

Slama says people take rhythmic notation for granted. She insists it’s a tough task to keep a beat. In her experience, it’s all learned and not an innate skill.

“If you don’t believe me, come watch a new student clap with a metronome,” she said.

Slama thinks parents shouldn’t waiver from encouraging their children to seek an interest in musical instruments. If they don’t at an early age, they may forever stay locked into activities that don’t enrich them culturally.

“I don’t think it happens naturally but for a handful of kids, especially in this cultural atmosphere,” she said. “They don’t get exposure to it. American culture in general has a shortage of exposure to higher art. They play video games or use the Internet. Their free time is taken up by digital stuff.”

That doesn’t mean Slama is anti-Internet. She uses the digital age to education’s advantage. After sessions, she’ll recommend online videos featuring classical musicians they can watch on YouTube.

Sharing these artists, the music and her abilities gives Slama a warm feeling.

She wants her deep affinity of the art form to rub off on to her students, many of whom she feels are like her own family.

“I really like sharing, she said. “Music’s been a huge part of my life. It’s given me transcendental moments in my life. I’m just hoping I can pass that on to the next generation.

Along with performing as the principal violist with ASO, Slama’s professional achievements run down a long and distinguished list.

She attended the New School of Music in Philadelphia, which was eventually absorbed by Temple University. While in school, she began playing professionally.

“I did gigs to keep the hoagies in the fridge,” she said.

Soon, she and her classmates saw the openings for the ASO and tried out just to get some audition experience. To her surprise, Slama landed the job.

She also played with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra and studied under Max Aranoff of the Curtis String Quartet.

Chilton County resident Vanda Davenport’s daughter, Anna, takes regular lessons from Slama and has seen immediate results.

Vanda used to drive Anna to Birmingham every Saturday, and as she progressed, sometimes twice a week.

While they were pleased with the results, the near 90-mile roundtrip began to wear on them. Soon, they discovered Slama and found just what they were looking for.

She said Slama’s contributions are invaluable to the community, and she hopes people take advantage of the offering.

“She encourages her students to do their best and has a reward system in place for hours practiced and recorded in a practice log,” Davenport said. “Julie’s impact on the students of our community has been wonderful. I personally know several of her students, and all of them are advancing well and love Mrs. Slama.

“To have this opportunity in our community is something that I did not expect to see when I was on the road to Birmingham each week for so many years.”