For five years running, the DeKalb County School System has been on the list of the top 100 music programs in America designated by the National Association of Music Merchants.
"We look for quality individuals to teach our kids," said Don Roberts, the DCSS instrumental music coordinator.
The DeKalb Youth Symphony Orchestra has been an integral part of the county's music program since the late 1960s. Once just a strings program, today DYSO includes all symphonic sections - strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion.
"The program is a reflection of DeKalb County. [Students come from] all corners of the county," Roberts said. "Put these kids in one place and you can do great things. It's an all-star team."
Earl Kuutti came to DeKalb County 27 years ago to direct DYSO as well as music programs in various county schools. He inaugurated the Kittredge Magnet School music program and has been at Chamblee High School, and now Chamblee Middle School, for 17 years. Last year, for the first time he taught the daughter of a former student.
DYSO practices weekly during the school year at CMS and performs three free concerts. The first concert this school year will be Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m. at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston Campus.
Although students have to audition for a chair in the orchestra, Kuutti said the assembled group displays no competition among members.
"They enjoy being together and enjoy making music with their friends," Kuutti said. "It's been a real community. Some [students] are in for years and they look forward to being with their friends [from other schools]."
Kuutti has seen many of his students go on to professional music careers either as performers or teachers. Each year, a few orchestra members are selected to perform a concerto during a concert. "A concerto is a real push for some of them. That's often a springboard to the next level," Kuutti said.
Roberts gives Kuutti high marks for guiding the DYSO. "The sign of a good leader is consistency. Consistency produces outstanding results, and [Mr. Kuutti] is as good as it gets," Roberts said. "He's a treasure for our system."
Dunwoody High School seniors Natalie Beckenbaugh and Juliana Fritts have been DYSO members since ninth and 11th grades, respectively. Both appreciate the communal environment that Kuutti referred to.
"I enjoy making music with other kids," said Beckenbaugh, the daughter of Donna Packer and David Beckenbaugh.
"It's cool to make friends from other schools. We interact with other schools in a positive way, not competitive," said Fritts. "We play together, work together. It's sort of like a family."
Both started their music training on the piano. Beckenbaugh picked up the saxophone in the sixth grade but switched to oboe because she wanted to play in the orchestra instead of the band, and there are no sax chairs in an orchestra. She had access to a relative's oboe and the DHS orchestra leader offered to teach her how to play the instrument.
"I will try to make a living performing the oboe. I will try to make people happy by performing and writing," said Beckenbaugh, who has a wise approach to choosing the right college music program. "Sometimes the teacher is more important than the school name," she said.
Fritts, the daughter of Marty and Steve Fritts, started playing the viola in middle school. She listened to music to hear the sounds of different instruments and picked the viola because she thought it was unique. "It has a middle tone-harmony range - the best of [both] violin and cello," she said.
Fritts said she likes the challenge of playing in DYSO. With more players than in her high school orchestra, DYSO has a "bigger, richer sound, like a real symphony orchestra."
Although she plans to pursue a nursing career, Fritts said she wants to continue playing the viola in college. "I don't want to stop after coming this far with it," she said.
Roberts points out that data and test scores have proven that "students involved in music do better academically than their peers and they test better." For example, he said, "Music is math (counting), music is science (vibrations), music is physical education (marching band), music is history (study of composers and performers)."
He added that the DCSS is committed to providing music programs despite budget constraints.
"One of the keys to our success in DeKalb - we have been able to do more with less due to our outstanding teachers," Roberts said.