World on a (B) String
Old-Time Fiddle Music with the B Strings Band…
Kristine Benham, a pianist who also knows her way around an upright bass, has made it a point to expose her children to music. Not only is it fun and ensures the house is filled with song, she’s found that the concentration and discipline involved with learning an instrument gives her young charges an intellectual boost, as well.
“Any music is good for the brain,” says Benham, a longtime educator. That the five children she adopted with her husband, Daniel, now perform together in a band called the B Strings is just icing on the cake.
The sibling band specializes in old-time fiddle music with a repertoire that includes “Old Joe Clark,” “Amazing Grace,” “Tennessee Waltz” and “Liza Jane.” When the B Strings perform in church, “How Great Thou Art” and “The Old Rugged Cross” are added.
Benham periodically accompanies the kids on the upright bass when they’re at competitions, but for paid gigs it’s always just the five children.
Instruction begins at age 5 with private lessons. Benham prefers to start them on the fiddle. “I have found the violin/fiddle is best for concentration. It requires the use of the bow hand and the other hand to hold the instrument. You don’t get a good sound on the violin if it’s not done right. The feedback is instant.”
At 17, Gracie is the oldest; she plays the fiddle, cello, ukelele and piano. She performs with the Mountain Messengers string band and also has a side gig as Sundial Strings, where she can occasionally be found busking at the namesake bridge. Lucie, 15, lists the viola as her principal instrument but she also plays the fiddle and guitar. “We call her our boomchucker. The guitar player keeps the rhythm while the fiddle player is the melody and kind of the star of the show,” Benham says.
Bo, the 11-year-old, plays the fiddle and drums while his younger sister Marah, 9, plays fiddle. Jack, the youngest at age 8, also plays the fiddle and recently won the Nevada state peewee fiddle championship.
Benham credits the strings program offered through the Redding School District for strengthening her children’s musical foundations. “It started at Bonny View Elementary, where they offer a fourth-grade violin class and the school supplies those instruments. Three times a week, a teacher comes on campus to teach the children and it carries through Sequoia Middle School. They’ll loan a violin or a viola and your kids get to learn the violin. It’s fantastic. We started 10 years ago. We’re very grateful to (now retired) Superintendent Adams,” Benham says.
The B Strings also get a lot of support and encouragement from members of the Redding-based District 6 of the California State Old Time Fiddle Association. “We’re newbies to District 6 but people are excited that we have kids,” Benham says. The California State Old Time Fiddle Association will host the 40th Western Fiddle Open in October at the Red Bluff Elks Lodge.
The Benham kids are not strictly bluegrass fiddlers, either: they all play in orchestras and can read music. Learning classical music also stimulates the kids’ developing brains, mom says. “There’s so much math in music. You can see the connection between all of the disciplines in music. It incorporates so much with hands-on learning.”
Benham says she began home-schooling her children when the COVID-19 pandemic hit so she’s extra excited about a new beginning strings course (Music 325) offered this fall at Shasta College. It’s open to kindergarteners through adults with no experience required. Li-Yuan Ho, concertmaster for the Shasta Symphony Orchestra, will be the instructor.
“It’s great for homeschool students. I’m going to learn the violin and Gracie will switch to cello,” Benham says. In the meantime, “we’re just having fun with our kids and playing music.” •
To learn more about the Shasta College course, visit https://mysc.shastacollege.edu/Student/Courses/ Search and search for MUS-325-F7561