A String of Triumphs For Violinist, 13

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

One wall of the Lyons family's living-room-turned-music-studio chronicles the journey of Jessica Lyons, starting with the snapshot of a smiling but serious toddler holding a toy violin.

"She loved playing with it," her mother, Jennifer Lyons, said. "It was just a toy, but she couldn't put it down."

After receiving her first real violin at age 4, Jessica began lessons with her mother, a schoolteacher and violin instructor. She learned how to hold the tiny instrument under her chin just so, and dash the bow to and fro on the short strings.

When she was 10, Jessica auditioned for Holly Hamilton, a violinist in the National Symphony Orchestra who teaches in Bethesda, and became Hamilton's youngest pupil. Today, at age 13, Jessica plays Mozart's concertos in G and C. Beethoven's "Romance." Vivaldi's "Spring."

"They have a lot of meat in them," she said, sitting in the sunroom of her parents' home in Hollywood one afternoon last week. "I don't know how else to say it. Meat."

Jessica, a seventh-grader at Leonardtown Middle School who loves "Little House on the Prairie" reruns, practices violin at least two hours a day, four hours daily in the summer. With the help of her violin teacher, Jessica has met some of her instrument's biggest names, including Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell and Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Each year, Jessica performs a solo recital. She plays with the Chamber Orchestra of Southern Maryland and the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra, which will tour France this summer. She auditioned and played in the Maryland All State Orchestra, beating out older students from counties where instrumental music programs are much more extensive than in St. Mary's.

For fun, she plays piano, too.

Every other day, her school orchestra holds practice, but Jessica says those sessions are not as serious as the ones she attends elsewhere. She tries to tell her classmates about her adventures as an aspiring violinist, or at least explain to them why she listens to so much classical music in the car, rather than top 40 on the radio.

"They don't get it," she said.

Her mom adds, "They don't understand why she doesn't go to the mall or watch 'American Idol.' "

Jessica loves school, especially the modern history she is studying in social studies. She keeps her grades high, but teachers become frustrated with her schedule and frequent absences. Her mother is getting frustrated, too, and plans to home-school Jessica when she starts high school.

"I've held off for as long as I can, because I know how important the social aspects of school are for kids," her mother said. "But she's so dedicated to this. She needs to be practicing four hours a day and have a more flexible schedule."

Jessica's best friends are the young musicians who have chosen the same life as she has, driving long distances for lessons and rehearsals, practicing hours each day, dreaming of sitting in the honorary first chair in the National Symphony Orchestra, creating strategies for how to get into their music conservatory of choice and discussing new violin arrangements of classic operas.

"I just feel more included," she said. "I just feel like I am in a family when I am in the orchestra."

The Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra 2008 Gala Concert is April 12 at the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts in Annapolis. A reception and silent auction begin at 6:45 p.m., followed by the concert at 8. Tickets are $43 in advance for adults, $53 at the door and $18 for students. To buy tickets or for more information, call the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts box office at 410-280-5640 or go tohttp://tickets.marylandhall.org.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company