When Breanna Bunch, 8, started school at Great Lakes Academy in South Shore, she befriended a classmate who played the violin. Inspired by her friend’s musical talent, she came home and confidently told her parents that she too wanted to play the instrument.

Eager to fuel her daughter’s passion, her mother Brenda Bunch began checking to see if the family could afford violin lessons.

“If my child wants to do something and it means I have to go without, it’s OK because it’s something they want to do,” said Brenda Bunch. Even so, she and her husband, Randall Bunch, just couldn’t swing it.

“It just wasn’t in the budget,” she said. “There’s no way we could pay for it.”

Violin instructor Elisabeth Johnson, with the Merit School of Music, demonstrates how to tuck a violin on the shoulder; the free classes at the Crown Center in South Shore are part of a partnership between Merit and Chicago Youth Centers. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Just a few years later, Breanna is playing the violin, thanks to lessons provided at no cost to her parents. She and other elementary students in South Shore get the free lessons twice a week, thanks to a partnership between Chicago Youth Centers and the Merit School of Music.

Until Brenda Bunch found out about the free lessons, “I wanted to cry, because when I can’t do for my child it breaks my heart and it feels like at times I’m failing her. … And then this opportunity came and it was like a burden lifted off of our backs.”

For almost a year, Breanna has practiced every day, mastering simple melodies, including “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She attends lessons at a youth center twice a week, has weekly private lessons — and, per her mother’s rule, practices every day before school. Her violin rental is paid for by the program, her lessons at a Chicago youth center are close to home, and transportation is provided for her one-on-one sessions in the West Loop.

The partnership, part of the Merit Music in Communities program, is intended for students who wouldn’t get to learn an instrument otherwise. The program serves more than 2,000 children in greater Chicago, but the venture with Chicago Youth Centers began just last year, with violin in South Shore and a youth choir in Lawndale.

Elisabeth Johnson, violin instructor with the Merit School of Music, shows Ali Reis proper finger positions during a lesson at the Crown Center in South Shore. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

“Having opportunities like this should be a right for children, not a privilege,” said Scott Merrow, chief operating officer of Chicago Youth Centers. “It shouldn’t be that you don’t have access because of your ZIP code.”

Merit shares a similar philosophy. “Our mission is the idea of removing barriers to give children transformative musical experiences,” said Charles Grode, Merit’s president and executive director.

“Often the most obvious barrier is cost, but we’re also looking to make a geographic barrier disappear as well,” said Grode. The children already are at the youth center, “so by having instructors there, we remove those geographic barriers.”

The free, local lessons not only have helped Breanna Bunch master an instrument, but also become more confident.

Parent Dedra Ries peeks in on the Tuesday violin class as students work with instructor Elisabeth Johnson of the Merit School of Music. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

The 8-year-old said the violin has encouraged her to be organized and set higher academic goals. Her father’s view: “The sense of accomplishment from playing gives her so much confidence and really increases who she is as a person.”

Grode said confidence and dedication are common among young musicians.

“One of the great things about music is that it requires skills that are transferable beyond music — including focus, attention to detail, and discipline,” said Grode. “Learning to play helps them develop skills that are important to success in life.”

Brian Beach, director of Merit’s string and orchestra program, said learning an instrument at a young age can help children concentrate better in school and persevere in other areas. Beach also said that when students learn to identify mistakes when practicing new music, they are also learning to solve problems and think more critically.

Instructor Elisabeth Johnson watches as India Mabon, 9, goes thru a violin exercise Tuesday at the Crown Center in South Shore. The students are working on different rhythms. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

“Learning an instrument can teach them so much, and it all ties into their wider academic social emotional health, said Beach, who conducts the program’s annual recital. The director said watching the children learn violin and feel proud of their success is extremely rewarding.

“These kids are just as intelligent, smart and engaged as children who come from a very privileged background,” Beach said. “The difference is just access, and these kids deserve every opportunity we can give them.”

Merit’s violin lessons take place at the Rebecca K. Crown Center in South Shore on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The students all perform in the annual recital, scheduled for May at Symphony Center.