Caurine Easterling started playing the cello when she was a freshman in high school. That was about the time American soldiers were coming home from World War I.

A retired government clerk, Easterling still practices her cello two hours a day. She also teaches about 20 music students, annually attends summer music festivals in Vermont, plays with an informal string quartet and, at 81, is the oldest member of the Arlington Symphony.

Easterling, who has been with the symphony since 1948, said she thought it was time to retire last year. "Your fingers don't move as fast as they used to," she said.

But after quitting last spring and missing a number of rehearsals and two performances in the fall, Easterling rejoined the community orchestra.

"I just couldn't live without it," she said. "Actually, it's my life."

Caurine Easterling's love and enthusiasm for music and musical performance is typical of the approximately 70 members of the Arlington Symphony. While professional ensembles such as the National Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra can offer their musicians salaries, prestige and, perhaps, a shot at fame, a community orchestra such as Arlington's depends entirely on the dedication of its volunteer members.

The group is as diverse as it is dedicated. Its members range in age from teen-agers to octogenarians. Many began playing an instrument before they were 10. Some are music teachers and professional musicians. Many are part-time musicians with full-time careers -- a lawyer on the violin, a physicist on french horn, an orthopedic surgeon on viola and an engineer on bass.

And every Wednesday evening from fall to late spring, they lug their cellos and carry their oboes and clarinets to rehearse for a performance, which is usually at Arlington's Kenmore Auditorium. For some this often means arranging for a baby-sitter; for most, it means summoning up two hours worth of energy after a full day at the office.

The Arlington Symphony, now in its 40th season, gave its debut performance in the spring of 1946. For the last 10 years, the symphony has given eight free concerts from September to May.

The orchestra gets financial support from the county government. When fiscal 1985 started, the Arlington County Board allocated $17,000 to the orchestra through the Visual and Performing Arts section of the Department of Community Affairs, according to Janet Daeger, supervisor of the section. The majority of the money has been used to pay the conductor's salary, she said.

In addition, the orchestra is supported by an active board of directors. According to board president Jean Taylor, the committee has raised about $22,000 in contributions for the symphony so far this fiscal year. Although some of this money has gone to the conductor, most has been used to pay for program printing and mailing costs, soloist fees, purchase of music and rental of instruments, she said. The conductor is paid a total of $19,400, with the funds coming from the county and contributions.

The orchestra also has received about $10,000 in state aid, said board treasurer Richard Franz. He said he thinks the symphony will use most of these combined funds by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

Bruce Taylor, a 34-year-old government statistician who plays violin with the symphony, believes there's a certain benefit in being a member of a nonprofessional ensemble. "People who play in an orchestra like this do it because they get enjoyment out it," he said. Taylor said he is glad he decided against pursuing a career in music because he thinks he might have lost some of his delight in the violin.

This sense of delight -- both in musical instruments and the sound they can create -- is what binds the orchestra members together and keeps them coming back for more.

"You have chills all over when you play in an orchestra because you are completely surrounded by sound," said Taylor's wife, Carol, who also plays violin with the symphony. "It's pure gratification."

Heidi Weintraub, a 32-year-old trial lawyer with the Labor Department who has played violin with the "You have chills all over when you play in an orchestra because you are completely surrounded by sound." -- Violinist Carol Taylor symphony for two years, says she loves to play music with other people. "Everyone is working together to get to a final destination," she said.

Louis Wolcott, the orchestra's 25-year-old concertmaster, thinks some of the performances the orchestra has created have been "very exciting."

"I've always felt music is a part of me," Wolcott said. "If I'm walking down the street and I hear a horn, I know what note it is."

Wolcott, a music teacher and violin free-lancer, said he hopes to join a professional orchestra.

As the Arlington Symphony celebrates its 40th anniversary, it finds itself at a crossroads. Karl Rucht, who has served as the orchestra's music director and conductor for the last 20 years, is retiring at the end of this season. Rucht declined to be interviewed.

"I was very depressed about it [Rucht's leaving]," said Gretta Sandberg, who has played the violin with the orchestra under Rucht's direction for 15 years. Sandberg is on the search committee for a new conductor.

"The music he [Rucht] performs is very much a part of him," said Wolcott. "He brings a definite emotion to the music. He knows what the music should convey and he strives to get the most out of the orchestra. Some conductors are very dry."

Lazo Momchilovich, a 37-year-old professional oboe player who is rehearsing with the orchestra for its April Beethoven concert because "the first oboe is getting married," praised Rucht's style.

"He's a very intense person but he tries to convey the importance of being relaxed at the same time," he said. "When people come to a concert they want to relax."

"He brings the character to the Arlington Symphony," said Gigi Turgeon, the orchestra's youngest member.

Turgeon, 14, has played the violin since she was 3 and has been a member of the symphony for two years. Like Wolcott, she, too, hopes to join a professional orchestra someday. "I enjoy making music. It's my life," she said. "If I wasn't playing the violin, I wouldn't be able to call myself anything."