By Sarah Elkins
Russell Fallstad sits on the edge of his chair in the corner of a sunlit room tuning a violin so small it should belong in a fairy tale. A fidgety four-year-old boy stands before him waiting to be led through a brief five minute lesson. Filling the room behind the boy is a semicircle of chairs. Parents and four other children, ranging in age from three to eight, look on.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and this is HeartStrings Academy’s Twinkle Jam group violin lesson. This is one of a full spectrum of lessons offered for students of literally every age, from babies to seniors. Russell hands the tuned 1/16th size violin to the student. He shakes his head, “It’s impossible to keep these things tuned.”
He turns his attention to the little musician in front of him, leans forward, locks eyes and says, “Rest position.” The boy snaps the violin under his right arm and hooks his bow in the crook of a dirty forefinger. He stands at attention waiting for the next cue. At least for the moment, his fidgeting subsides. A student at HeartStrings learns to hold eye contact for 10 seconds.
Russell, still holding an unblinking gaze, takes a deep breath. Even this breath is part of a routine the children recognize as easily as the prize box on the counter. “One, two, down and up,” Russell says. Teacher and student bow to each other in the ritual that opens and closes each lesson. On this day, the boy is offered a challenge. If he can play Twinkle Variation A (a version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) five times with no mistakes, he will earn the five finger puppets Russell has just pulled from the prize box. Every student in the room will follow the same lesson format, but the challenge will be different depending on where each is in his or her learning. Each student is learning at a different pace, and for Russell, that’s perfect.
Later, after the hour and a half group lesson is over, Russell explains, “The kids are always learning from each other, even when it seems like they aren’t paying attention. They learn to play the violin in exactly the same way they learned to walk and talk.” This is one of the core principles of the Suzuki Method of music education, also called the mother-tongue approach, and it is essential to the learning that goes on at HeartStrings Academy.
“Our brains are hardwired to learn very complex things easily through immersion, motivation, social interaction, repetition and breaking skills into micro-skills. It’s how babies learn. It’s how my students learn the language of music,” Russell asserts. “Playing the violin well is not reserved for gifted people; anyone can do it.”
Russell, who founded HeartStrings Academy in Lewisburg in 2012, is a classically trained musician who has performed all over the world. Perhaps that’s not so obvious to the person expecting the tuxedo type. He is leaning back in a faded floral wingback chair wearing jeans, an untucked button-down with the sleeves rolled to his elbows and bright red Nike high top sneakers. His laughing blue eyes and five-day salt and pepper scruff belie the meticulousness of the typical classical musician. The Minneapolis native earned his undergraduate degree and MFA in violin performance from Northwestern University then went on to become the founding violist of the renowned Fry Street Quartet. He has taught music education at DePaul University, Lenoir-Rhyne University and Utah State University. He has built music education programs from the ground up that continue to thrive in their communities. His violin dons a thrift shop silk scarf as a makeshift shoulder strap. As incongruent as Russell may seem, he is anything but.
On the contrary, interconnectedness is at the center of HeartStrings’ philosophy, and violin instruction is a fraction of what happens at “Lewisburg’s little log cabin workshop for human development.” Russell walks out of the empty lesson room into another class space with a large stone fireplace, talking over his shoulder, “I’m fascinated by the connections: body, mind and soul, how they work together. HeartStrings isn’t just music lessons. We are yoga, pilates, tai chi, meditation, art gallery, concert venue. We are a place where people find connection with themselves and others.”
An ornately carved mantle over the fireplace is engraved with the year 1790, the year the log cabin was first built. It originally stood in Williamsburg, West Virginia until it was moved to the present location on Court Street in Lewisburg by Schleiff, LLC, a family-owned and operated construction company that envisioned an eco-friendly, sustainable space that could become a community center. Renovations and additions took seven years to complete, using only leftover materials from other construction projects, including a tile floor at the stairwell, designed from a mosaic of mismatched pieces. Russell says the floor is one of his favorite details of the building, “See, reusable is beautiful. This floor is a permanent art installation.”
In-floor radiant heating not only saves energy but makes wintertime yoga classes cozy, and solar panels installed on the side yard provide some of the building’s energy source.
In 2012 Russell had been looking for a space where he could live and teach his private violin students. He needed a place where music would sound great and where he would be inspired to write. Financially it made sense if he could live where he worked. Cari Cohen—a local alternative healer who now leads group meditation at HeartStrings—said she knew of the perfect place, and Russell visited the recently finished log cabin. It was indeed perfect.
“Without this space, HeartStrings never would have happened,” Russell admits. “Because the building is such an inspirational place for learning and sharing, the opportunities just keep opening.”
Beyond classroom space, HeartStrings Academy boasts the artwork of local painter Mary Hurst. Her seductive and fanciful canvases add delight to nearly every room (even the bathroom).
“We’ve had a few art shows and will be doing more in the future,” Russell says. But, folks need not wait for the next opening, Hurst’s work, on semi-permanent exhibit, is worth an afternoon visit any day.
A long-time practitioner of yoga, Russell was naturally drawn to including yoga in HeartStrings’ offerings. Since 2012, the class selection has continued to expand and offers diverse choices by instructors from around the area. Now, students choose between Forrest, Ashtanga, Active, and Mysore yoga along with periodic classes taught by visiting instructors. Meditation, Tai Chi and Pilates round out a full schedule of healing arts. The space is also used for community concerts by visiting and local performers as well as biannual recitals performed by HeartStrings’ many students.
Russell stands in the center of the room, colorful yoga mats rolled neatly in a corner, one of Hurst’s forest scenes on the wall next to an upright piano tucked into a corner. He throws his arms wide, “All of this is part of the HeartStrings mission of improving the human condition through learning. It’s all connected. I love that,” adding, “But, we haven’t even gotten to the second or third floors.”
The third floor of HeartStrings Academy houses a music studio where guitar lessons, chamber music and band practices take place. The low-slung roughhewn rafters create an ironically cavernous effect at the top of the building.
“The music sounds so good up here,” Russell says. Guitars lean against a couch, and chairs are arranged in a haphazard circle. Several children’s drums are stacked one on top of the other in a corner. The room exudes the playfulness of music making, and it is obvious Russell loves this room.
“If it has strings, we play it in this room,” he laughs.
Down one flight to the second floor, Russell leads the way through a short hallway to a small, sunny room which contains what appears to be an oversized curio cabinet. The glass doors and sleek wooden slats of this “cabinet” are actually the latest in HeartStrings’ healing arts amenities: a Far-infrared sauna.
“I became interested in the burgeoning research on infrared therapy, and I realized it was the perfect addition to our offerings.” According to studies by practitioners like Dr. Mark Hyman, infrared therapy improves circulation and immune system function while detoxifying and relieving body aches.
“I’m not a doctor, so I hesitate to rattle off too many of the benefits of the sauna as an authority, but I would encourage people to come try it out,” Russell shrugs. The sauna is available by reservation for 30-minute sessions.
Russell returns to the main level and out onto the front porch of the log cabin that peeks from behind the historic Silas B. Mason home on Court Street. Spring is around the corner, and HeartStrings Academy, closing in on its second year in existence, is just beginning to bloom. He leans against a porch column, “HeartStrings is sort of a workshop in how to learn anything. Ultimately it is also a place for expressing what you have learned.”
Maybe also it is a place where Russell Fallstad expresses all that he has learned.
To find out more about HeartStrings Academy or to view a schedule of classes and events visit