The Art of Teaching Classical Music in a West Virginia High School

John Marshall in Glen Dale, an adjacent community that shares key institutions with Moundsville, WV, subject of our PBS film Moundsville, is one of those great American high schools that punches above its weight. 

U.S. public education is especially important in places like West Virginia that have suffered from depopulation, and teaching high school is one of those jobs that is stimulating and pays well enough to keep young, smart, ambitious people in the community, working at places like John Marshall. 

Founded in 1968 and named after the Supreme Court chief justice from 1801 to 1835, John Marshall has a total enrollment of 1,030 (as of March 9, 2022), an impressively high graduation rate of 94%. Its shiny football stadium is on your left when you drive into Moundsville from Wheeling.

JMHS’ notable alumni include country singers Brad Paisley and Lionel Cartwright, basketball referee Ted Valentine, art director (including on Harry Potter films) Molly Hughes, television writer and producer (including on Law&Order Dawn DeNoon, Hershey executive Tim Hinegardner, Methodist church bishop Tom Bickerton, team handball Olympian Amy Gamble, and Cynthia Bissett, mother of Lady Gaga

Among John Marshall’s many classes and programs that offer students a rich, well-rounded education is an ambitious strings program, which teaches students violin, viola, cello, and bass. Their next concert is May 3, in the school’s auditorium. (See details below).

The strings director is Justin Jones, who’s decided to dedicate his career to staying in the Moundsville area and teaching string music. “You need good people everywhere to make things work,” he told me. “I’ve been given an opportunity to build something here.”

Jones, 34, grew up in Marshall County.Jones, and has had “family in the [Ohio] valley for as long as I can remember.” His dad is a power plant maintenance mechanic. His mom currently works at a doctor’s office.

He started playing violin in kindergarten, and then joined the band in fifth grade. He graduated from high school in Wheeling, and then attended college in Youngstown, OH. “People don’t realize how many gems there are in this part of the country,” he said. 

Marshall County started the current iteration of its strings program in 2008. After Jones graduated from college in 2010, he took over the program. 

For six years, Marshall County has had three full-time string teachers. They instruct at 11 schools all over the county, including in rural Cameron, which has a population of under 1,000. Every week, one of the instructors drives out to Cameron for half the day to teach strings. 

For Jones, the Moundsville area is not as isolated as people think.  “People don’t realize as part of the Northern Panhandle, how close we are to everything,” said Jones. “For instance, I’ll take us to the Pittsburgh Symphony, and it’s an hour and fifteen minutes door to door from John Marshall to Heinz Hall.”

The program includes 270 students grades four to 12 studying string instruments. They perform four major concerts a year at the high school, three at the middle school, two at the elementary schools, and “additional performances by small ensembles are shared during the year throughout the community,” Jones added. (You can watch and listen to an excerpt of the chamber orchestra’s “Monarch Tidings” Christmas season performance here.)

Jones’ favorite classical pieces for high school students to perform are an arrangement of The Planets by English composer Gustav Holst, “depicting the vibe of each planet, including a slow piece called Jupiter with a slow, chorale-like movement” and “the Moldau, a symphonic poem by Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana.”

Last month, the orchestra played a Disney-themed concert for around 500 people at John Marshall High School.

The program – Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, Pirates of the Caribbean and other classics – was “relatable by everybody,” said Jones. “Was it perfect? No. Did we feel good about what we presented? Yes!” he wrote in a followup note. 

It was also relatively short: 55 minutes. “That included everything,” said Jones. When they leave, we don’t want them thinking ‘oh man I don’t want to go to my kid’s concert next spring’. We want them leaving with anticipation for the next performance.”

The concert raised over $3,300 in donations for two scholarships, one in the name of a student, Robert James “Jim” Gracey, killed in a 2019 car accident, and another for a graduating senior from the Marshall County string program. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, and resulting quarantine, have changed how Jones teaches music. “It has brought us into a digital age,” he said. “Kids are submitting audio recording for feedback. It’s instantaneous. It’s all online. It’s made the classroom process way more efficient. It holds kids accountable for their work and the practice time they put in.” 

Jones said he’s “thankful for the quality of students who want to play an instrument. I don’t deal with behavioral issues in my classroom. Students choose to be in strings class.”

That keeps Jones motivated. “When I started, from day 1, I thought this could be one of those jobs I retire from,” he said. “It still feels that way.”

John W. Miller

May 3 Concert at John Marshall High School

The Marshall County Strings Program will present its annual spring concert on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at 6:30pm, at the John Marshall High School Center for Performing Arts. 

This will be the first county-wide string performance by students in grades 4-12 since 2019. The concert will feature combined performances involving students from Cameron, Center McMechen, Central, Glen Dale, Hilltop, Sand Hill, and Washington Lands elementary schools, as well as Cameron, Moundsville, and Sherrard middle schools, and Cameron and John Marshall High Schools. The concert is free; however, donations will be accepted.

The concert will feature an evening of classical and symphonic music. Elementary selections will include traditional childhood tunes such as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Middle school students will share three selections including a creative fiddle-style mashup of two famous melodies by Johann Sebastian Bach.

High school selections include Primavera, a modern setting of themes Antonio Vivaldi’s Spring from The Four Seasons.

A special piece, commissioned by the John Marshall Band and String Programs, in memory of Jim Gracey will premiere. Opening Night, written by award-winning composer Brian Balmages, celebrates the life of Jim who was tragically killed in a car accident his freshman year.

The concert will culminate with a mass orchestra of 270 students in grades 4-12 performing Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Additionally, the strings program will present a donation to the Robert James “Jim” Gracey Memorial Scholarship fund. This donation made possible with funds collected at the strings benefit concert this past February.

Videotaping, audio recording, LIVE streaming or social media posting of this performance is strictly prohibited by law.

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