Pick of the Week

Knowing What Love Is

Many kids dream about getting the opportunity to rock out with a famous band. For a group of lucky and talented Tucson students, their dream is about to become a reality.

"It's such a big deal for these kids, and they have worked so hard," said Shailagh Merrill, director of Tender Strings Chamber Ensemble.

Tender Strings is the name of a unique group of students who love to play the violin and viola--and who have been asked to perform alongside legendary rock band Foreigner during a concert benefitting La Paloma Family Services. Merrill, who teaches private lessons in violin, viola and voice, formed Tender Strings three years ago.

Merrill began playing the violin when she was 3 years old, and she grew up performing with her siblings, who also mastered the instrument. She decided in college that her calling was to teach others.

"When I was growing up, my mom always told us we were given a talent, and we had a responsibility to share that talent with other peopleÑthat's something I have tried to instill in my students," Merrill said.

Merrill's students come from Vail, Corona de Tucson and southeast Tucson. Tender Strings is a coed ensemble who plays at local churches, nursing homes and schools. The students range in age from 12 to 16 and have been playing as long as seven years.

"(Playing violin/viola) is not the cool thing to do anymore, but when kids see other kids play, they realize how exciting and fun it really can be," Merrill said. "I think it is very heartening to see that there is still an appreciation for this music."

La Paloma Family Services asked Tender Strings to perform alongside Foreigner at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall. The organization has provided shelter, counseling and other needed assistance for foster children for nearly 30 years.

"We deal with at-risk kids who are in the government system," said Randy Hansen, director of creative services for La Paloma Family Services. "These are kids who have been neglected or in some cases horribly abused, and we try to give them a safe place to live, help them deal with any emotional problems and try to provide them with some kind of support to help change their lives."

Hansen said he's excited about the exposure the concert will provide La Paloma. "For people to get to know us and to get to understand the needs of the kids who are abandoned or neglected is the real value in a concert like this.

"All the money goes to our kids and our programs--everything from buying diapers to helping pay for the ink in our printers for our photography class," Hansen said.

How did Foreigner get in touch with La Paloma? It's all in the family: Randy Hansen is the father of Foreigner's current lead singer, Kelly Hansen.

There will be a sponsor dinner before the concert where La Paloma's contributors will get to meet members of the band. Entertainment during the dinner will be provided by the Tender Strings.

"Some of the kids are really excited about the dinner portion of it and getting to play for some really important people of Tucson, while others are thrilled to death about the opportunity to be onstage with a band like Foreigner and singing during the rock concert," Merrill said.

Foreigner got its start back in the '70s, then led by Mick Jones (who is still in the band) and Ian McDonald. Their self-titled debut album sold more than 4 million copies in the United States. To date, the band has sold more than 50 million albums around the world, with hits such as "Waiting for a Girl Like You," "I Want to Know What Love Is" and "Urgent."

"For a band of this stature to do this is just really neat," Hansen said. "I am personally grateful to the band and Kelly for their willingness to do this."

La Paloma Family Services is hosting a benefit concert featuring Foreigner and local chamber ensemble Tender Strings at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 21, at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets being sold through Ticketmaster (321-1000) and cost $35 to $125. For more details about the benefit concert, contact Mark McCord at 750-9667, or visit the La Paloma Web site. For more information about Tender Strings Chamber Ensemble, contact Shailagh Merrill at 245-1387.