JAMES CITY — The music room at Laurel Lane Elementary School holds decades of memories for Cynthia Campbell.
On her desk sits old photobooks, capturing memories of former students and past recitals. Today, those students are all grown up.
“She just had a really big impact on my life,” said Anderson Lee, one of Campbell’s former students.
After 30 years, Campbell, who helped create the strings program at Williamsburg-James City County Schools, is retiring at the end of the school year. On May 16, friends and colleagues hosted a surprise retirement party for her at the Williamsburg Community Chapel, where string ensembles from Jamestown and Warhill high schools and the Williamsburg Youth Harp Society’s advanced players performed in her honor.
Not only was Campbell Lee’s music teacher at Laurel Lane and her harp instructor, but they were also neighbors. Lee recently graduated from Radford University with a degree in music therapy and plays the harp at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center.
Lee recalled how Campbell used to encourage students to practice, rewarding them with stickers when they mastered a song. Today, Lee still lives by Campbell’s methods: “It’s something that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life, because I think everybody deserves little motivations.”
Campbell grew up in Newport News. She started playing instruments when she was 7 years old and credits her mother for her love of music. Her mom didn’t have the opportunity to pursue music as a child and believed it was important that her daughters knew how to play instruments.
“I was very shy, and the music gave me something to feel special,” said Campbell.
Campbell learned to play the organ, the piano, the harp, the violin and the accordion. Although, she didn’t always want to practice, her mother was persistent and had her following a schedule of 30-minute sessions with each instrument.
“Music was my life,” said Campbell.
At one point, Campbell played four different instruments. She practiced for two hours every day, participated in her high school’s orchestra and visited her church after school to play the organ. Her mother’s encouragement, she said, “made me who I am today.”
After graduating high school at 16 years old, Campbell decided to turn her passion for music into a career by becoming a music teacher. Instilling enthusiasm for music at a young age “is where you plant the seeds,” she said.
She attended Bob Jones University in South Carolina and received a master’s in education from Western Kentucky University. Campbell taught at schools in Kentucky, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia before moving back to Virginia in 1993.
At 36 years old, Campbell began teaching at Rawls Byrd Elementary School, which is now Laurel Lane. There, she worked to help create the strings program.
Starting the strings program was not an easy job, said Genrose Lashinger, a former coordinator of music for WJCC Schools, but Campbell was strong and got it established.
In her second semester of teaching at Laurel Lane, Campbell began exploring whether students would be interested in a strings program. She originally hoped to find 12 children, but ended up with 19 violin students. In addition, the principal, J.D. Briggs, created a summer enrichment program where Campbell would teach violin.
Parents would rent the instruments, but Briggs would also go out and find instruments for Campbell. Briggs once traveled to Richmond and brought her a bass.
With the string program’s growing success, they began developing a pilot program to be implemented across the school system. Initially, support for the program lagged, but after a school board member attended one of the teacher’s third grade violin classes, it passed by one vote.
The program was implemented for third grade at Laurel Lane and then adopted by other schools in the area.
Though Campbell plays many different instruments, her main passion is the harp, which she started playing in the seventh grade. Wanting to offer that same opportunity to her own students, Campbell asked Briggs to lease a harp and she began teaching 12 children on the one instrument.
Campbell and Briggs took the young harpists and string players to different places, such as conferences, the Williamsburg Inn and senior living homes to perform and promote their program and raise money for more instruments.
Campbell taught before, during and after school and held private lessons from her home for the performing group.
Kathryn Harms’ love of harps began in 1999 in Campbell’s third grade class. Today, Harms has a master’s degree in harp performance and is a professional harpist. She teaches at a private studio and is the harp faculty member at Colorado State University. Harms still keeps in touch with Campbell, who she credits with having an “indelible impact” on her life.
Campbell always challenged her harp students to be the best they could be, Harms said.
“In music class, I remember when she split us up into groups and started an activity by having us tell each other ‘you are unique and valuable,’” said Harms. “She always made sure that everyone felt cherished.”
In 2006, with the support of parents, Campbell started the nonproft Williamsburg Youth Harp Society, which allowed her to offer harp lessons to the whole community. Instead of being limited to students at Laurel Lane, Campbell expanded lessons to include anyone from 8 to 18. They are currently housed in Williamsburg Baptist Church.
Campbell inspired hundreds of young children as a music teacher at Laurel Lane and within the youth harp society.
Sydney Harris, a former Laurel Lane student and one of Campbell’s harp students for 10 years, recalled a time when Campbell held an advanced ensemble rehearsal in her home. She baked cookies and played alongside the students, said Harris.
In high school, Harris helped teach beginner harp classes and said she gained a new appreciation for Campbell as an instructor. “She knew how to communicate music in a language that children could understand.”
Today, Harris attends Davidson College where she is a music major on the pre-med track.
When asked what she loves most about teaching, Campbell said she loves seeing kids’ joy when they practice and finally master a piece.
“You don’t go into teaching for the money, you go in it for other rewards,” she said. “Rewards of seeing the smiles on their faces when they learn something new.”
Campbell will continue to teach harp to the Williamsburg Youth Harp Society after she retires. She intends to play the harp as long as she can and hopes to visit her grandchildren in Kentucky more often.
But until she leaves Laurel Lane, she’s soaking it all in.
“I will miss the children,” Campbell said. “They’re always coming here hugging me now because they know I’m leaving.”
Evelyn Davidson, firstname.lastname@example.org