GONZALES — Before actually playing the keyboards in Borislava Iltcheva-Farrell’s piano class at Ascension Christian Elementary School, three first-graders practiced their form and posture.
After demonstrating they could keep their backs straight and their hands and elbows lifted off the table, students Avery Allred, Cole Vogel and Morgan Munson were ready to move to their keyboards.
“The right hand is not my thing,” Morgan told Iltcheva-Farrell as the 6-year-old attempted to play the children’s song “Hello, Hen” with the fingers of her right hand.
The three first-graders are among 25 students learning to play the violin or piano from Iltcheva-Farrell at Ascension Christian Elementary School in Gonzales.
While she teaches piano and violin lessons at the school four days a week for a few hours each day, Iltcheva-Farrell’s full-time job is first-chair violinist and concertmaster with the Baton Rouge Symphony.
Iltcheva-Farrell has held the title of concertmaster for 14 years.
The concertmaster is a highly regarded leader in the orchestra who establishes unity and communication between the conductor and musicians.
But outside of work hours, Iltcheva-Farrell, 36, and her husband, Aaron Farrell, the principal second violin of the Baton Rouge Symphony, are working to create a strong music program for children.
One day they hope to open their own music school in Gonzales, Iltcheva-Farrell said.
Learning to play an instrument has lifelong benefits for children, Iltcheva-Farrell said.
“One of the best benefits for them is that they learn from a very young age to be extremely precise and accurate in what they do, their tasks,” Iltcheva-Farrell said.
Studies have shown that “music engages the whole brain,” Iltcheva-Farrell said.
Iltcheva-Farrell was born into a musical family in Bulgaria. Her grandfather was a orchestra conductor, her grandmother a singer and her parents violinists.
“It came naturally,” Iltcheva-Farrell said.
She decided early on to make music her career, and when she was 6, her father sat her down to have a talk.
“He said, ‘I would love to teach you, but this is a very difficult profession for a girl,’” Iltcheva-Farrell said.
Professional musicians have busy schedules that require them to travel around the world. Her father, she said, played between 80 to 100 concerts each year.
Such a whirlwind career would leave little time for a family and children, her father warned.
But Iltcheva-Farrell was determined.
“I made them teach me,” she said.
She went on to earn bachelor’s degrees from the Bulgarian National Academy and masters and doctorate degrees in violin performance and pedagogy from Indiana University and LSU.
Iltcheva-Farrell credits Ascension Christian Elementary School Principal Brett Shelton and Ascension Christian Schools Superintendent Mark Pellegrin for encouraging music on the campuses and developing such strict discipline among the students that it makes it easy to teach, she said.
“In the public school system, this is being cut left and right,” Iltcheva-Farrell said of music programs. “[Mark and Brett] understand the importance of the arts and music.”
Shelton said the elementary school’s student body is too small to justify hiring a full-time music teacher, so when Iltcheva-Farrell offered to help the school develop a string program last year, school officials jumped at the chance.
The 2013-14 school year was the first year that Iltcheva-Farrell, known as “Mrs. Bo” to the students, began teaching violin lessons to about four children during their physical education classes or library time.
This year she offered piano lessons as well, and enrollment jumped to 25 students, Shelton said.
One advantage is that the students “don’t have to go out of the school to take the lessons, and that helps parents out tremendously,” Iltcheva-Farrell said.
The school is planning to add a music program next semester for the youngest children at the school to develop basic musical skills.
“I wish it was something we had the luxury to offer more of, and I think we will,” Shelton said, adding that Iltcheva-Farrell hopes to expand the number of classes she teaches.
While the students’ parents pay Iltcheva-Farrell for private and group lessons, the violin virtuoso volunteers her time when students perform at assemblies and at chapel, Shelton said.
Having a music program at all is a plus at the small Christian school, but employing a world-renowned musician like Iltcheva-Farrell is an advantage other schools don’t have.
“It’s definitely a draw,” said Shelton.“She’s providing something out of the kindness of her heart. She has a vision.”