Keeping Notes Afloat in Class

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008; Page B02

Third-graders at Hunters Woods Elementary School are required to learn the fundamentals of the violin. They know how to stand up straight, how to hold their instruments and how to use the tippy tips of their fingers when they press on the strings so they don't make what their teacher calls "an icky sound."

After learning a grand total of eight notes, they also know how to make music. Their repertoire one fall morning included pieces from a range of cultures and styles: "Caribbean Island," "Seminole Chant," "Good King Wenceslas."

In Fairfax County and elsewhere, students often begin studying violin in fourth grade. Hunters Woods, an arts and science magnet school in Reston, gives them a one-year head start. Experts say the earlier children begin, the more likely they are to succeed in music.

Hunters Woods, with 950 students, is one of more than a dozen local schools in which teachers are trained through the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to infuse arts education into other subjects. For instance, students might build instruments from recycled materials, learn science through lessons on sound and vibration or study math through measurement and patterning. Some also compose songs with lyrics inspired by Virginia history.

But music programs and the rest of the education budget are under scrutiny as the county School Board seeks to close a $220 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in July. One proposal to save about $850,000 would trim band and strings teaching positions, making it tough to keep such programs in third and fourth grades, said Roger Tomhave, fine arts coordinator for Fairfax schools.

In any economic downturn, music education becomes a topic in public hearings. How does fourth-grade strings fit into core academic goals? Is it superfluous, or is it essential?

For Schools & Learning this week, music educators chime in on why such lessons matter and what they impart beyond knowledge of scales and rhythm.

Responsibility And Discipline

Before the Hunters Woods third-graders were allowed to lift their pint-size instruments to pluck or bow a single note, teacher Kara Feigleson asked them to sit in a semicircle and tell her how many days they have practiced. They opened their music books and counted the X's penciled into their practice record, representing the days they reviewed music at home.

Some students said they have practiced once; others, every night. Samuel Gordon, 8, said he sometimes practices an hour a day because he studies piano, too.

"Music is one of the strictest disciplines," Feigleson said. "You have to practice every day. It's not like riding a bike. If you don't keep it up, you're going to lose it."

Students also have to take care of their instrument -- not a small challenge. At the beginning of class, a student arrived with the first casualty of the school year: Her borrowed violin had a missing string and broken scroll.

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