As part of its May 20th-22nd Hunt Country Music Festival, the Middleburg Concert Series has included a Youth Music Competition to encourage a love of music in the area. The Competition is open to Fauquier and Loudoun County residents in two age groups: ages 10-15 and 16-18. The initial screening will be completed by the students submitting a video recording, followed by a semi-final round on April 24th at Buchanan Hall in Upperville, and a final round during the Festival on May 21st at Middleburg United Methodist Church in Middleburg. Judges will be prominent professional musicians. Substantial cash prizes will be awarded to the top three winners in each age group, courtesy of a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Howard Armfield of Middleburg, which monies should significantly assist students in the expenses of their music studies.

The Eccentric had the opportunity to interview the Youth Competition chairpersons, Mrs. Martha Cotter, head of the Music School of the Piedmont, and Dr. Steven Cooksey, professor emeritus at Shenandoah University Conservatory. Both Mrs. Cotter and Dr. Cooksey are well-known figures in the area music community and provided a fantastic overview of an often unrecognized but enormous subculture in our area.  

Ms. Cotter stated that her research has indicated how widespread playing a musical instrument is: 52% of U.S. households have one person five or older learning or currently playing an instrument. Dr. Cooksey agreed, stating that about one in ten adults play music or participate in a music ensemble, far more than sports participation since many sports cannot be enjoyed as we age. He said that Washington DC is “the choral capital of the world” and has more choral groups than anywhere else. The surrounding counties each have a symphony, and there are many amateur or professional music groups. Loudoun County has 100 students participating in three youth orchestras. This area thus has a rich music culture.

Ms. Cotter stated, “music is a team sport,” so the most popular instruments are played in groups. High school and middle school students gravitate to band instruments such as saxophone, flute, drums, and clarinet. The guitar is also popular, which, according to Dr. Cooksey, is one of the two instruments—the saxophone being the other—on which students can become proficient enough relatively quickly to join a jazz ensemble or band. The piano is not as prevalent as it used to be, partly because it is more challenging to learn and also because it is not amenable to being played in a group. However, digital keyboards are changing this somewhat as they are more portable and less expensive than traditional pianos and can be programmed to play different sounds and record. 

According to Dr. Cooksey, much of the instruction takes place in the schools, which in our area have done an excellent job of teaching and promoting music. They have world-class jazz bands, marching bands, and concert ensembles. There are also many good private music schools and private instructors, and the proximity to Shenandoah Conservatory supplies exceptional graduate students as instructors. In-home instruction is not as prevalent in rural areas as ours due to the travel distances. However, during the pandemic, in-home instruction was an answer to social distancing, primarily via Zoom. Practice time, like physical training, can’t be crammed into concentrated periods but must be done consistently. Even one-half hour per day produces much better results than 1 ½ hour ganged together over the weekend.  

Affordability is an issue for many students, although generally instruments can be rented, used ones are available on Craigs List, or the schools provide some instruments. Trading up to better instruments occurs typically after the students determine they have a long-term interest or are at the college level. Unfortunately, little scholarship money is available, so there tends to be a socio-economic divide in music education.

Both Dr. Cooksey and Mrs. Cotter stated that learning to play music has a massive impact on mental skills, as it crosses many disciplines. It leads to better hand-eye coordination, memorization, concentration, patience, self-discipline, and improved math and science skills. Dr. Cooksey pointed out that participation in music competitions and recitals is not unlike debating or giving speeches. There is no way to practice performing for a live audience except to do it.  

Students interested in entering the Youth Competition at the Hunt Country Music Festival can find information on applying at www.huntcountrymusicfestival.org. The application deadline is April 1st.

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