Tucking her violin under her chin, Emma Palys drew her bow across the strings, sending notes soaring into the air.
Palys spent weeks practicing the duet with her violin teacher, Katie Butler, before the pair’s performance at the Main Street Community Garden as part of the Clayton Spring Art Walk on Saturday.
Her brow furrowed in concentration, Palys’ eyes never wavered from the sheets of music in front of her until she played the last note. Then she broke into a smile.
“I’m not sure what I’d do without music,” said Palys, who is on the autism spectrum.
Learning to play the violin has helped Palys, 12, of Clayton, manage her anxiety and nervousness. She began taking lessons in third grade and has become first violin in the Johnston County Junior Orchestra. Since she began playing four years ago, Palys has moved from scales to longer pieces of music.
When she gets butterflies in her stomach or begins to tense up in stressful situations, Palys picks up her violin or puts on her headphones. Every day, she practices for 30 to 60 minutes. Sometimes she hears a song and tries to replicate the notes on her violin.
“Music helps me relax and calm down,” Palys said. “Sometimes I get really nervous and work myself up.”
Switching from public school to virtual classes also has helped Palys cope. Last year her parents enrolled her in N.C. Virtual Academy, an online charter school affiliated with K12 Inc., because she was struggling with crippling bouts of anxiety and maintaining high grades.
Bridget Palys, Emma’s mother, had her doubts about online school initially but said the change turned her daughter’s life around. Emma Palys now earns straight A’s.
“I can’t say enough about how great it has been for our family,” Bridget Palys said. “Emma is doing so much better. It has been so wonderful for her.”
The academy and N.C. Connections, another virtual charter school, are part of a four-year pilot program mandated by the legislature. Both schools began enrolling students statewide in 2015.
Around 8:30 a.m. every weekday, Emma Palys opens her laptop and watches a livestream of her teachers going through lessons. When she gets frustrated or overwhelmed by a concept, she schedules a private tutoring session with her teacher.
I don’t let anything hold me back. When I start to get nervous, I think about the music.
Emma Palys, 12
Sometimes Palys’ classes take field trips to local museums and educational venues. The first time Palys met her classmates on a field trip, she was nervous.
“I was anxious meeting all of these other kids, but it was great,” she said. “The school is amazing.”
Palys struggled to make friends while enrolled in public school, but has met other students and musicians through virtual school and orchestra practices. She regularly texts and emails back and forth with them.
By 3:30 p.m., Palys is usually finished with classes and homework and spends the rest of the day practicing violin and listening to heavy metal, her favorite genre of music. Once a week she takes private lessons with Butler.
“I don’t let anything hold me back,” Palys said. “When I start to get nervous, I think about the music.”