Local students see music potential in joint performance with older peers

Traci Newell/Town Crier
Los Altos School District music teacher John Beeman, above, conducts a group of sixth- and seventh-graders performing “Malala’s Message,” a piece he composed for the “Strictly Strings” concert Feb. 16.

Los Altos School District elementary, junior high and high school students recently joined forces for the annual “Strictly Strings” concert, which offered the opportunity to envision their progress if they stick with their music instruction.

“‘Strictly Strings’ has been a big deal for about 20 years,” said John Beeman, music teacher for Los Altos School District schools. “It has made a huge difference. The elementary and junior high students get to see what they have to look forward to.”

The Feb. 16 “Strictly Strings” concert featured a number of performances, including collaborations that paired younger students with older ones.

“I hope that the older students will serve as role models for the sixth-grade students,” Beeman said. “For kids who decide that strings are for them, it will be really inspiring to see how good they are going to sound in junior high and high school.”

The performances and rehearsals also exposed sixth-graders to the junior high and high school programs – which include elements such as festival and competitive performances.

According to fellow elementary school district music teacher Corrie Dunn, the sixth-graders attend music lessons once a week.

“Once a week is really not enough,” she said. “They get to see how good you can get when you have music every day. The changes between the sixth- and seventh-grade musician are very special for them to see.”

“Strictly Strings” highlights strings instruments including violin, viola, cello and bass. This year’s featured students attend Covington, Almond, Gardner Bullis, Santa Rita, Egan Junior High and Los Altos High. The remaining Los Altos School District elementary schools and Blach Intermediate hold a similar performance called “String Fling” each year.

Beeman bids farewell

This year’s “Strictly Strings” event was special for Beeman, who has worked with the school district for 27 years. He recently announced his retirement from teaching.

Beeman, a composer and conductor, wrote a piece for the sixth- and seventh-graders to perform – “Malala’s Message,” after the Pakistani activist for girls’ education.

“I had an idea that I could use her name, Malala, using the musical notes ‘me-la-la,’” he said.

Beeman was influenced by lullabies from Pakistan and added percussion – tabla and dholak drums – to the performance.

His passion for teaching music comes from his childhood. He didn’t receive formal music instruction at a young age, but he learned to play bass early on from his older brother.

“I found I liked working with elementary-aged students a lot because I knew how hard it was for students to learn without a music program,” he said. “It made me think back to what the steps are to learn how to play, and that made me a better teacher.”

Beeman said his favorite teaching memories include staging “El Condor,” a musical he wrote when he first started at the district in the early 1990s at Springer School. He recalled that the four performances were totally sold out.

While he enjoys teaching students, Beeman said he wants more time to work on his own compositions. He is currently writing an opera about Ishi – the last Native American in California to come out of hiding.

Dunn, who has taught alongside Beeman for 10 years, said he and his talents would be missed.

“I will be very sad to see him go,” she said. “He is a wonderful teacher and composer, and the staff and the kids like him so much.”

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