Although he is taller than many of his classmates, sixth-grader Jack Beckner is outsized by several inches by his upright bass. He tried smaller, lighter string instruments, but the big, fat bass fit him best.
“I didn’t like the sound of the violin because it’s kind of shrill and you have to be really good to make it sound good,” said Jack, 11. “The bass is underestimated, and it’s really important to keeping the band together.”
Jack is one of 314 Spring Hill Elementary School students who comprise one of the largest public elementary school string programs in the state.
Hunters Woods Elementary has the largest string program in Fairfax County public schools, with more than 410 players. Currently, 14,664 Fairfax elementary school students are enrolled in the string program. There are eight elementary schools in the county with programs of 200 or more students. All elementary schools offer string programs.
At Spring Hill, students must take strings during their fourth-grade year.
“In fourth grade, you’re forced to take strings and then you can take band [or continue with strings] in fifth grade,” said sixth-grade cellist Christopher Fox, 12.
Students also can switch to other music programs such as choir. As with band, students can choose their own instruments. Most students select a violin; others choose viola, the double bass or cello.
Students generally buy their own instruments. Instrument rentals are available through music stores. Some instruments are available through the schools based on student need, according to the school system.
“I just liked the sound, and I liked how big it was. I picked up a violin before, and I didn’t like how small it was,” Christopher said.
Students said their long-time teacher Ruth Donahue, who has directed at the school for 24 years, drives the success of the program.
Fairfax County public schools music education specialist Keith Taylor agreed.
“It’s a fabulous ensemble,” Taylor said. “They play for the School Board every year. They’re just really good. The string director is awesome. Ruth is one of our best. She’s dedicated to getting the kids out there performing. There are only so many opportunities available to kids in elementary school to perform.”
Spring Hill is one of nine Fairfax schools that are part of the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts program, which promotes professional development as well as integrating the arts into the school curriculum.
Holiday and end-of-the-year concerts might offer the only opportunity for elementary school musicians to perform, but Donahue’s ensembles have captured an audience off campus.
“We’ve been asked to play at the opening of businesses, restaurants. We’ve played, in the past, at teachers’ weddings,” Donahue said, adding that the novelty is quality of musicianship at a young age.
Donahue said her students also participate in multiple music competitions each year, such as district orchestra assessments.
“Many schools don’t do that,” she said. Students in the Strolling Strings ensemble “play for a different grade level [in the school] every month. It’s sort of like a master class for them. It gets the word out about the spring program, and it’s another opportunity for the kids to perform.”
Although students are performing and competing outside the classroom, there also are opportunities to compete in the classroom. Students audition for placement in ensembles, which means there always is something to work toward, students said.
“Orchestra is a little bit more challenging, I think. The pieces are a bit harder,” sixth-grade violinist David DiMeglio said.
David, 12, plays with Donahue’s premiere ensemble, the Chamber Ensemble, which includes 27 of the school’s best musicians.
Fellow sixth-grader Laurenn Lee, 11, said: “Our orchestra program is somewhat better than other schools, I think.”
The difference, students and director said, is in the delivery.
“We give more concerts than any other elementary school in Fairfax County,” Donahue said. “I believe in showing them off.”