Spring String Thing Chamber Orchestra 2011 in rehearsal – Forbes Center Concert Hall
Ben E. Wright
SPRING STRING THING
May 20-22, 2016
The 2016 Spring String Thing marks the 39th year for this highly popular program, which was begun by Ben E. Wright in May of 1978 as, in his own words, “an experiment”. According to Sam Cross, JMU emeritus Professor of Double Bass, who was on the faculty for that very first SST, “Ben was concerned that institutions of higher learning tend to merely court high school seniors, and do little to enrich the educational experience in the public schools. That is why he designed the Spring String Thing to provide enrichment for junior high school students. There must have been a need for his idea—Spring String Thing has prospered ever since.”
Although he was an oboist, Ben Wright had been a public school string teacher in Kansas. His purpose and philosophy for establishing the JMU Spring String Thing was “To offer a wider opportunity to the junior high/middle school and senior high musician to perform in a large orchestral situation and to encourage that student to improve individual and ensemble performance skills.”
Furthermore, Dr. Wright wrote, “Music [to be performed] is chosen in an effort to be sure that all participants can participate at their fullest capability, emphasizing sound, bow control, playing positions and ensemble performance practices. Although there is a final performance, the learning process and social interaction remains the primary objective of the program.”
Dr. Ben Wright, who was Director of Orchestras in the Music Department from 1971-1987 at what was then Madison College, held the very first Spring String Thing in 1978 with a single orchestra of 286. Needless to say that although the “experiment” went through quite a bit of refinement after that first time, the many students who attended must have indelible memories of the experience. Quite a number of those first SST attendees were inspired to become string teachers. Many of them are teaching around the state and support the program because they believe that their students will enjoy the program as much as they did.
During the years Ben Wright was Director, the program flourished and increased to multiple orchestras. After Ben Wright died in 1987, several years of interim directors contributed to a fairly significant decline in enrollment in the late 80’ and early 90’s, but the program has been thriving since 1992 under the direction and administrative guidance of Dr. Robert McCashin, Director of Orchestras at JMU, and his wife, Clarine (“Charlie”) McCashin, who originated a similar summer program in Texas just a couple of years after Ben Wright began Spring String Thing.
Spring String Thing has grown steadily since its revival, with many campers attending from their junior high years all the way through high school. Not only have many of our JMU counselor staff done just that and are now “on the other side” and filling key staff positions, but many of those same campers and counselors are now teaching and sending their students! A very large family indeed!
While of course times have changed, and public school strings both in Virginia and nationwide have become must more sophisticated, the enjoyment that both junior high AND high school students gain from Spring String Thing is a tribute to Ben Wright’s vision and hard work as well as the McCashins’ continued dedicated nurturing of the campers who comprise the Spring String Thing family.
Enrollment has grown steadily and has been capped at a maximum of 500 of balanced instrumentation for well over 10 years and following for the camp is legion around the state attesting to the continued popularity of the program. The program now employs an amazing totally dedicated adult faculty and student staff of over 60 individuals, most of whom have been on board for many years. The six orchestras of SST are conducted by Dr. McCashin and changing guest conductors from around the state. The literature presented now ranges in scope from that performed by the Bravo Orchestra to that of the highly select Chamber Orchestra.
Dr. and Mrs. McCashin will be retiring after 24 years with JMU and this will be their last Spring String Thing. They will very much miss the personal interaction with the thousands of campers and their families who have attended Spring String Thing during their time here!