The sound of music has always been a core value at The Hill School in Middleburg, and for most of the last quarter-century, Karen Chase has been hitting all the right notes.
This year marks her 25th year at Hill School, and as head of the music program at the Junior Kindergarten through eighth grade school founded in 1926. Over that span, she’s given countless students an abiding appreciation of all things musical, vocal and instrumental, Beethoven to Broadway, Bach to the Beatles.
“Our music program actually works into a child’s overall development,” she said in a recent interview. “We’re also trying to give them an overview so that if they never pursue music after they graduate, at least they’ll have a concrete base and an appreciation for music that will always be a part of their lives.”
“Music, as well as art, drama, and athletics are all important parts of our co-curricular program,” said Treavor Lord, Hill’s Head of School. “We consider them co-curricular versus extra-curricular because they are part of the experience we want every student to have. A strong and engaging academic program coupled with the meaningful participation in the arts and athletics helps provide an ideal environment for children to learn and grow.”
At Hill, the music all begins in Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten, where the basics of rhythm are taught with the use of small hand-drums, tambourines, maracas and other instruments. All the way up to the third grade, Chase also employs xylophones especially designed for younger children by German composer Carl Orff, best known for his epic cantata, Carmina Burana, a staple of classical music.
“He was interested in having children play music, and he picked the size and designed a version that was built just for them,” Chase said. “It is great for teaching percussion, and it also gives them the ability to use their hands and arms. It teaches them patterns, which also has a helpful effect on pattern recognition, making them better math students and better readers.”
Third and fourth graders are taught the basics of string instruments, and also use recorders, with a larger recorder introduced in fifth grade. In the sixth grade, African-style drums are part of the program; in seventh they learn the ukulele and in eighth grade, they study composers, from classical to the history of rock and roll. Last year, eighth-graders focused on the Beatles. This year it’s Elton John, both music icons to their parents but actually somewhat unfamiliar to most of the children.
“And every class sings,” said Chase, herself a soprano who has performed in choral or solo appearances for most of her life. Younger students learn voice in a progression that begins with basic melodies and moves up to harmony by the time they’re in fifth and sixth grade. It’s all part of preparing them to put on Hill’s annual eighth grade show, usually a Broadway musical that has ranged from Fiddler on the Roof to The Wizard of Oz to this year’s School of Rock, an Andrew Lloyd Webber production.
There also is coordination with several classroom projects around the school. For example, when fifth graders under teacher John Daum move into the study of the Renaissance, Chase augments it with exploring that era’s music with instruments and some choral work, as well.
Over the years, Chase also has had a number of success stories come out of her classrooms.
Blythe Condon, a 2015 graduate of Hill, “was a strong singer from the early grades with a voice that stood out and often led the class,” said Chase. While at Hill, Blythe competed in and won the Bland Music Competition two times and was selected in a nationwide audition by the Honors Performance Series to sing at Carnegie Hall. Blythe will return to Carnegie Hall in February to perform at the high school level.
“I had the pleasure of working with Blythe and teaching her voice lessons for five years,” Chase said. “She was always such a pleasure to work with and I’m excited to see what the future holds for her.”
The latest success has been Briggs Williamson, a Hill fourth-grader last year. A 10-year-old with an angelic voice, the youngster is now enrolled in the American Boychoir school near Princeton, N.J., and performing around the country with its nationally-acclaimed choir.
“I encouraged Briggs to take that leap,” Chase said. “He certainly has a beautiful voice. I gave him what I could, and he also has a fabulous ear. I really want him to succeed.”
Chase grew up in Connecticut and said she began singing when she was three years old—“I knew all the songs of the ‘50s”—and soon was taking piano lessons at her mother’s urging.
“She wouldn’t let me quit until I could read the music,” she said. “She really gave me the motivation to be good at it. It’s funny, if someone had told me back then that the piano would be one of the main ways I would make a living, I would have laughed.”
She graduated from Westminster Choir College, now affiliated with Rider University in New Jersey, taught for several years at the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut and moved to the Middleburg area in the early ‘90s, teaching at Foxcroft and doing all the piano accompaniment work at Hill before eventually joining Hill full-time.
In addition to her vocal and piano prowess, Chase also plays the organ and the cello and practices as much as she can during a day that also includes teaching private voice and piano lessons after school and on weekends. She was in the orchestra pit, as always, on the piano during School of Rock. She also directs the choir at Middleburg’s United Methodist Church, and is one of the founders of the popular Middleburg Concert Series at the same church.
“I pretty much work in music seven days a week,” she said, “and I’ve done that for most of the last twenty years.”
It’s also obvious that she loves all she does to provide the sound of music for so many lives, young and old, and particularly young.
“I value the school’s support of the arts and the opportunity that every child has to participate in a meaningful music program,” she said. “It’s a true gift.”
As is Karen Chase.