2016 Quincy Herald-Whig

All it took was one look, and one listen, to convince Makenna Lohmeyer. "When they start playing the violin, it sounds pretty beautiful," said Makenna, a fourth-grader at Baldwin Elementary School. "So I want to play the violin.” So did fellow fourth-grader Gunner Oenning, who got some encouragement to try the violin from an older sister who plays the flute.

Learning any instrument can be a challenge. It's even more challenging for Makenna and Gunner because both are deaf, but they're convinced that doesn't need to be a roadblock to reaching their dreams. "Just because they're deaf doesn't mean they can't do it -- and they're showing it to everyone this year," said Anna Whaley, a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing who works with both students.

It's an important message to send to the hearing students at Baldwin. Whaley said. "Some do think they're deaf, they can't do this or that. Having them in the music program shows they can do it.

With violins tucked under their chins and bows moving across the strings, they played along with 13 other students one day last week working in small sections of the piece. Makenna and Gunner sat right in front, paying careful attention to what teachers Josh Wunderlich and Chad Ensinger had to say. Makenna has two cochlear implants enabling her to hear. Gunner has one implant, a hearing aid and an interpreter.

They had warmed up with a D major scale, note by note, then segued into "Mississippi Cakewalk" with a reminder from Wunderlich to focus on the sound and the "look" of the piece with proper posture. Ensinger targeted work on several measures of another piece, first reviewing the notes with students, playing a measure himself and then having the student echo the notes.

"Rewind. Do it again. Excellent," he said, and a final run-through earned a thumbs up from both Makenna and Gunner.

Starting out, Makenna admits practice sessions didn't sound pretty. "But this time, yeah, it does," she said. It's definitely improved since the beginning of the school year. "It sounds OK," Gunner said. The orchestra's first concert in December was a proud moment for both families, and Baldwin's spring concert marks another accomplishment. "It's a good example for other kids," said Christal Carter, Makenna's mom. "An inspiration even for adults. At the beginning of the year, I'd think, 'This is not going to work,' but she put her heart into it. She enjoys it, and it has gotten better," Carter said. "She's really good about practicing every night. It doesn't sound pretty sometimes, but at least she's trying. As long as she keeps trying, she'll be fine."

Missi Oenning says playing the violin has enriched her son Gunner's world. "He notices when he sees another violin player, whether on TV or just hearing them. He realizes what they're doing, and it makes him want to do more with his," she said. Beyond that, the instrument has given the 11-year-old a sense of responsibility. "It's his to take care of. If something happens to it, he's the one that has to deal with the consequences," Oenning said. "It's just like with his cochlear. It's his responsibility to charge it, clean it, put it in its proper place."

Oenning believes Gunner was born deaf, but he wasn't diagnosed until the age of three when hearing aids helped open the world. With a cochlear implant in second grade in one ear, coupled with a hearing aid, "Gunner has grown so much," Oenning said. "The first time he heard the leaves crunching under his feet, a bird chirping. All the things we take for granted, he's amazed with."

Oenning didn't question Gunner's interest in the violin, but admits she cringed at the idea.

"It's important for him to know he's like any other kid and can do anything he wants to," Oenning said. "I was amazed at how well he's learned it so far ... It gives other families that may be going through something similar, maybe not with a deaf child, the hope, the courage to say, "Let's try it. Let's just see. It won't hurt anything.'"