Giovanni Watson is an energetic 5-year-old who meets no strangers and is strong enough to pick up an 8-year-old.
It didn't take me very long to learn all that.
But what I didn't know is what his mother fully appreciates: Giovanni is much calmer now because of the opportunity he has been afforded to learn to play the violin.
He has received free private lessons at Central Music Academy in downtown Lexington since he was 2.
CMA is not the only youth music program in Fayette County, but it's the only one to focus solely on teaching music to children who qualify for free or reduced lunch in school.
"We want to focus our energies on kids who are really in need," said Josh E. Santana, CMA board chairman.
Santana grew up in New York City and credits the outstanding music program there for saving his life. "It kept me off the streets and engaged," he said. "I had phenomenal opportunities."
He said he "waxed poetic" about his experiences to others at Central Christian Church, and the seed was planted. The academy, an outgrowth of the dream of several people at the church, was established in 2004.
"Even though it is associated with Central Christian Church," he said, "there is no effort to convert people. The model we use is the good-neighbor church," one that provides services to the community but not just to find people to convert. "That is not our goal," he said.
Part of the goal was, however, to establish a relationship between the University of Kentucky and the community.
In April 2005, Erin Walker Bliss, a doctoral percussion student at UK, was hired as director. She has secured most of the CMA teachers from UK's music department to teach the 60 students taking private lessons and 75 or so more in after-school programs.
Bliss began a percussion camp for students in fourth through eighth grades right away, teaching the Trinidadian steel pans and about Brazilian and African drums.
CMA teachers, who earn $15 for 15 minutes of tutelage, have taught more than 200 students in private lessons, camps and after-school programs in Fayette County Public schools since it began. Steel-pan lessons after school are held at Arlington, Russell Cave, Dixie and Booker T. Washington elementary schools and at Sts. Peter and Paul School.
"They get to learn the music of other cultures and study where the instrument is from," Bliss said. The students also learn the dynamics of timbre and other musical properties. All of the teachings also keep the core content for CATS testing in mind.
The after-school program has been in place at Dixie for four years with great results. Not only did student behavior and grades improve, but CAT scores increased 54 points in two years.
"Music has been found to enhance reading and math scores," Bliss said. "And they seem to have a much easier time in learning foreign languages. Music is kind of its own language, so it can develop that part of the brain."
That seems to be true.
Ten years ago, researchers in California found that children receiving piano lessons performed 34 percent higher on spatial-reasoning tests than children with no training.
In 2007, a Chinese study found that school-age children who participated in music scored significantly higher on verbal memory tests than students who did not.
Giovanni's mother, Cynthia Buckner, said Giovanni's sister, Tatyana Buckner, 10, also has brought home better grades.
"She has always been very musical," Buckner said, "and he imitates her."
Buckner heard of the program from a music teacher at Booker T., where Tatyana attends. He recognized Tatyana's talents and urged Buckner to get her daughter private lessons. Buckner couldn't afford that. So the teacher told her about CMA.
"From what I've seen from my kids coming in from public schools, they get a great start (in music)," said Sarah Kehrberg, who teaches violin to Giovanni and Tatyana. "But there is only so much one teacher can do with so many students.
"I've seen Tatyana grow so much with one-on-one time. That's not bragging on me. She has those gifts inside of her," Kehrberg said.
Tatyana started with violin but has progressed to clarinet, drums and chorus. She recently auditioned to attend the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
When Tatyana decided that she wanted to play clarinet in the school's band, Buckner once again turned to CMA, because she couldn't afford the rental fee. They lent her a clarinet.
CMA moved to its current location, 240 Clark Street, early this year, gaining several practice rooms and office and storage space. The building is rented from Central Christian.
Thanks to grants and donations, CMA provides lessons to young people ages 8-18, with Giovanni the exception. His sister was in the program, so he was allowed to participate, too. About 24 percent of the students are Hispanic, 25 percent white, and 49 percent black.
Lessons are offered in voice, piano, tuba, French horn, clarinet and other woodwinds, euphonium, trombone, violin, viola, guitar, cello, bass and percussion. But they sure could use some help.
If you are a skilled musician and can repair instruments, Santana would love to talk with you about donating your time. If you have an old instrument of any kind to donate, CMA would love to take it off your hands. They'll take money, too.
Or if you want your child to fall in love with music the way Santana and Bliss have, give them a call. They want to help your child get hooked. Call (859) 221-2190 or (859) 221-4666.
"I have seen kids who are just excited about their instruments," Santana said. "I've seen kids who practice, obviously, because they are good musicians. And I've seen parents who are just absolutely thrilled about programs like this. I've been there, so I know what it is like."