Sister Serafina Viagrande's life has been tuned to classics

Monday, October 08, 2018 - Updated: 1:46 pm

By William Cone Editor

Just like the music she loves, Sister Serafina Viagrande is a classic.

Working in the instrumental music program in the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Catholic schools since 1982, she has exposed thousands of children to the wonders of classical music.

“We’re trying to educate our children in what is really important and to appreciate what real music is all about,” Sister Serafina, a Dominican sister of Our Lady of the Springs in Bridgeport, Connecticut, said recently.

Sister Serafina, 88, who professed vows in 1950 and is looking forward to celebrating her 70th anniversary of religious life in two years, was recognized for her work in May with a Golden Apple Award.

She grew up an only child in New Haven, Connecticut, to parents who were immigrants from Sicily. Her father, a bricklayer, had musical talent but no education in music. His desire was for his daughter to study music.

First at home, then in a studio and later a music school, young Serafina gained proficiency as a violinist, playing alongside students from nearby Yale University.

“I spent all Saturday in the music school. We had a string trio, we had an orchestra,” Sister Serafina said. “So my whole childhood revolved around music.

“I belonged to a little trio and we would play for different teas. We were 9 to 11 years old and we played for dinners. We were called the Neighborhood Music Trio.”

After entering religious life and being educated as a classroom teacher, she taught second through fourth grades. But her heart was in music education.

Soon after earning a master’s degree in music education from Ohio State University, Sister Serafina was transferred to Pittsburgh in 1965. A few years later — after teaching string instruments in after-school programs — she asked her superior and got permission to concentrate totally on music.

She is responsible for many innovative approaches during her time as director of the instrumental music program in elementary and middle school grades in local Catholic schools. Under Sister Serafina’s leadership, the pay structure was revamped to benefit music teachers; district bands were formed every year from the top student musicians in each area of the diocese; and an all-star band was comprised of the best from each district.

For a few years, she stopped selecting an all-star band because parents and students complained about their placement in the orchestras. But the all-star band concept was brought back by popular demand.

“I try to tell the kids, I said, ‘You’re all good, but I cannot put you all in one chair.’

“You try to get them to understand that each person is important, whether they’re playing first chair or last chair, whatever. They’re important to the whole ensemble,” Sister Serafina said.

Even with some schools closing in recent years, the level of participation in the music program is still strong, with more than 1,300 children in school bands at the end of the 2017-18 year, she said.

It’s a battle sometimes, Sister Serafina said, to get educators to understand the benefits of music education. Studies have shown that students who are involved with music are more proficient in other areas because of the discipline and type of learning that music requires.

Passing along a love for music can pay lifelong dividends, she said. It certainly has for her.

“Music does uplift us, and it kind of brings us together. That’s how I feel,” Sister Serafina said. “It’s so important that students realize the importance of music. That’s what my life has always been about. I grew up with it and I know the value of it, and I try to give it to the children.

“I’m only an instrument in his hands.”

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