The magic of volunteering

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE – Margaret Elwood has found a second calling.

Every Wednesday, the Edmonds resident tutors a chamber music ensemble at Terrace Park School. Once a week, Elwood volunteers her time to teach five musicians the basics of playing their string instruments.

If she’s lucky, when she arrives for the after-school lessons, her young charges are already sawing away at their violins, cellos or violas. If not, she spends the first few minutes helping the five 11- and 12-year-olds tune their instruments.

Michael V. Martina / The Herald

Margaret Elwood (center) plays along with sixth-graders Michelle Cheng (left) and Andrea McCool at Terrace Park School in Mountlake Terrace last week. A violinist, Elwood teaches an after-school chamber music ensemble.

Within minutes, Elwood has her modified string “quartet” playing classical musical arrangements by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Well, sort of.

The music can sound a little rough at first, but with a little encouragement- and lots of patience by both teacher and students – the ensemble is soon able to start a song together and end together in a whoosh.

“Halfway through, they were getting it, and I started getting goose bumps,” Elwood said after a recent practice.

Elwood is a training administrator at the Snohomish County PUD who teaches employees how to use computer programs. She enjoys the job, but lately has been thinking there’s something else she should be teaching.

“This is my next career,” said Elwood, who has been at the PUD for 21 years and has been entertaining thoughts of retiring so she can become a full-time music instructor.

“This is what brings me my most joy,” she said. “No matter what happens, I come out of here with a skip in my step and I’m in a much better mood.”

Elwood caught the music bug five years ago when she rediscovered the violin she had played through her teens and 20s before dropping out of the music scene to work full-time and take care of her family.

Then, 31/2 years ago, she was asked by a friend if she wanted to help with a concert at Terrace Park School.

“I went somewhat reluctantly, and I was just blown away by their performance,” she said. “It just grabbed me by the heartstrings.”

That’s when she asked orchestra teacher Barbara Thielen if she needed any help. Thielen invited her to work with students who were willing to stay after school one day a week to practice.

“She’s offered an opportunity that, in the public school system, I can’t do,” Thielen said. “She’s provided more of an individual approach to kids, who I’m sure will continue with it for the rest of their lives.”

Three years later, the one hour each week Elwood spends with her sixth-grade music students remains the highlight of her week.

Whether she’s reminding them to breathe, to look at each other or just to not forget their notes, Elwood is hands-on with her students. She finds that she reaches them best by bringing her violin and playing with them.

“If you breathe together, you can all start and finish together,” Elwood said of the music.

Her teachings aren’t falling on deaf ears.

“I like it because I’m getting better,” said Rebecca Raymond, 12, a cello player. “It’s fun and I’m learning.”

Thielen has noticed a difference when Rebecca and the other students return to the classroom.

“I’ve seen their self-image go up,” Thielen said. “I’ve seen them become more confident as players and people.”

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or

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