Strings Unlimited celebrates 20 years of making music

For 20 years, Strings Unlimited has been giving area musicians the opportunity to perform with string instruments.
Strings Unlimited, a tuition-based class, meets Monday nights at Faith Community Church at 2701 N. 8th St. beginning the third week of August, around the time school starts, and meets every Monday until the second week of May. Becky Mills, who started the class, shared that the group began in February of 2004.
“It was noted there was a real lack of strings programs in Southwest Iowa. The Wilson Performing Arts Center, at that time, approached me to start a stringed orchestra class to teach,” Mills said.
Mills plays for the group Mannheim Steamroller, so the group has a bit of a hiatus in December, while Mills is gone.
“The group meets sometimes on their own during that month, and they always play somewhere for Christmas without me. I teach them some Christmas music before I leave, and they continue on their own and organize that performance by themselves,” Mills explained. “We do a May concert every year. This will be our 21st concert in May. We also do some summer sessions, but those are free, and casual. We’ll play some patriotic music or some light pops, and in the summer we’ll play a farmers market, a park with a gazebo, or on occasion we’ve played the Fourth of July celebration in Shenandoah. Our goal is to find a community to go play in, during the summer.”
While initially intended for youth, the class soon expanded beyond just youth performers.
“When I had my first open house in early February 2004, I had a music company come with rental instruments, and 50% of the people that came were adults that either had their own instruments or wanted to buy something and they told me they always wanted to learn to play stringed instruments Even from the early goings, there ended up being quite a few adults participating,” Mills stated.
You must be nine or older to join, and there is no other age limit. Participants  bring their own instrument and stand, and Mills provides the music and the lessons. Performers are limited to playing violin, viola, cello, and bass, which is right up Mills’ alley in terms of skill set.
“I have a music education degree from Augustana College in Rock Island. I learned how to play all of those instruments, and they are the ones that I am comfortable teaching, and those instruments are currently what makes up our stringed orchestra,” commented Mills.
Even from the start, Mills said that Strings Unlimited was never intended to be “limited” to Red Oak.
“The original intent was to cover several counties. Red Oak was just our hub. In addition to Red Oak players, we have always had people from other towns play with us including Stanton, Villisca, Shenandoah, Clarinda, Malvern, Glenwood, Farragut, Hamburg, Bethesda, Lewis, and Atlantic. It’s definitely a multi-community group,” Mills advised.
For the youth, Mills said Strings Unlimited is a unique opportunity, as there are rarely stringed instruments in school bands.
“There are a lot of people that play a brass or woodwind instrument and wish they could play something with strings. To be fair, there are plenty of kids that do want to play brass or woodwind instruments in band. For me, I love providing lessons for people to learn stringed instruments that wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise,” Mills said.
As for the adults, while some of them are experienced, others are just beginning their journey playing stringed instruments.
“While some are picking back up with performing, I’ve taught several of them from scratch. They came to me and said they’ve never played them and always wanted to. As an adult, it’s a little harder to pick up, but it’s possible, and that’s because we have the program. Two people in the orchestra have been in it since my original class. One is my mom, Diana Kia, and the other is Kendi Buesing. She was a cello student in the very first class, and she’s still playing. They dedicate themselves to practicing, even though it’s something that didn’t come easy.”
One of the things that Mills said she loves about the class is that everyone in the orchestra is there because they want to be.
“It’s a complete choice. When people are paying to learn the instrument and become a part of the group, you know they really are there because they want to be. My youngest student, Graham Ripperger, is 10 now; he was 9 when he started,” Mills said.
According to Mills, the Strings Unlimited members love many aspects of the group.
“They love the music and the unique opportunity and the lasting friendships they’ve made. They also love going to different communities and sharing their music. We have fun, and they suggest music to me. We do classics, pop, movie soundtracks, even Santana and Led Zeppelin. Sometimes people in the orchestra will buy a score for us if it’s something they really want to play,” Mills advised.
Mills said she enjoys being able to provide the Strings Unlimited program for everyone interested.
“I’m a professional violinist, I’ve played for 35 years in the Omaha Symphony, and I play with Mannheim Steamroller, but this is the one time I can really give back to people. I can give them something they wouldn’t have. It’s my favorite professional thing to do,” Mills stated.
Mills also highlighted the fact that this was the only program of its type in Southwest Iowa. In fact, Mills said recent guest conductor Maestro Alejandro Gomez Guillen with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra said there was hardly anything like Strings Unlimited in the country.
“He said there’s hardly anything like this that is intergenerational, where people can start from scratch, that also accepts people that have played for many years. He said it was a super unique environment, and I love it.”
Guillen is currently a full-time conductor with the Omaha Symphony. Mills said she had asked other conductors to guest conduct but had no success. Guillen was different.
“He’s only been in Omaha for about a year and a half, and I felt he had the heart for it. When I approached him the first time, he said it was something he’d be interested in and we’d talk about it. A lot of times, ‘lets talk about it’ means they aren’t going to do it. But with him, it was always yes. We planned it for the fall, but then decided to wait until March so people could learn their music a bit more. We set up the date four months ago and kept confirming,” Mills said.
Additionally, Mills said the Strings Unlimited members loved being taught by Guillen.
“He was fabulous and loving to all of the students. When I saw him at work a couple days later, he still remembered their names. He’s a treasure. He gave them all of his heart and musicality and knowledge and it was beautiful. We were honored to have him come here,” Mills explained. “They were a bit nervous to start, but when they started working with him, they found out he’s a nice person and the nerves went away and the enthusiasm ramped up. They all told me that they wished they had more time with him and could pick his brain more.”
Unfortunately, Mills said if they have a guest conductor come again, it sadly won’t be Guillen.
“I would ask him to return, but he’s going to Arizona to a different job. We’ll see who replaces him in Omaha. If someone comes who has a heart like Guillen does, I will ask them.”
To learn more about Strings Unlimited, or to join, Mills said they can visit

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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