Above: Student Anna Zwirko double bass tuning in preparation of the concert
Scott Tester: Fauquier’s legendary music teacher
By Jaya Patil, photos courtesy of HMN Photography and Film
Wasps, school fights, and teaching choir classes with no prior experience are not on the list of things that Scott Tester fears. As his students know, Mr. Tester is not afraid of anything… except a bad note. Gifted with perfect pitch, Tester knows that out-of-tune is not the best that any music student can do. It is the commitment to a high standard that encourages his students to rise to the challenge and consistently succeed.
Tester’s life journey began in his native Ohio. While working on a B.A. in music education at the University of Toledo, he made his move on one of his former classmates who had caught his eye. His method was unique: he asked his now-wife Kathy a “test” question: where’s the spit valve on the flute? Kathy’s answer was, “right here,” proceeding to whip the headjoint off her flute and fling the moisture towards him. Their marriage brings a new significance to the idea of spit-shine.
Tester was called to the east coast by the beauty of Shenandoah National Park ever since taking family road trips to the region as he was growing up. He situated himself in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains with Kathy in 1977 and has lived here ever since, with the goal of making the biggest difference possible by teaching music in the area.
Fauquier County was doing well when Tester first started working with them as a middle school orchestra teacher, with their music classes being led by highly qualified teachers in every instrument specialization. He had his comfort zone pushed when he was given the task of teaching choir on top of his orchestra classes. With no experience in that instruction, Tester immersed himself in the world of choir so he could bring his absolute best to those classes. In just a short amount of time, he says, “I couldn’t tell which I enjoyed doing more: choir or orchestra.” His enjoyment of his craft doesn’t end with him. A parent of a former student says, “My daughter went into Mr. Tester’s orchestra class at the beginning of sixth grade having never played an instrument in her life, like most of the other kids. My husband and I went to the end of the year concert in the spring, and we were completely stunned at how much these kids had learned and how good they were. It was very emotional. Mr. Tester is almost magical with these kids.”
Tester’s gift of perfect pitch is not the sole reason for his successes. The achievements throughout his career are born of the passion he brings to the table in everything he does. According to Tester, the kids come first and every student’s needs must be met. He never hesitates to act for the benefit of students, from halting physical altercations to capturing stray wasps that settled on a child’s head. But the perfect pitch plays a part in how high his bar stands, as he knows children will rise to a challenge. It’s never about singling one person out but about embracing differences to work as a team and honor the necessity of every person’s presence and effort. Kathy says, “They’re all his kids, every single one of them.”
Tester knows his career is not measured by his many accolades but by enabling his students to succeed in spite of any obstacles, and the passion that he feeds to his students is easy to see. Having taken his group of students to the Virginia Music Educators Association (VMEA) Performance Assessments every year of his career, his groups consistently achieve high marks across the board when being judged. The accomplishments don’t stop at high ratings. Tester has escorted his students to the prestigious VMEA conference twice—a gathering of teachers of all grades (elementary to college) from every county in the commonwealth of Virginia—having been selected as the only orchestra to perform on behalf of middle schools. His reputation is not what is notable, instead it’s giving the gift of music to these kids—“something that stays with them their whole lives,” says Kathy. Tester has taught over 2000 students during his 45 years in the education system, which makes going anywhere a celebrity event with many people recognizing him.
Outside music education in the county’s public school system, Tester is active in Allegro Community School for the Arts where he has been director of the Allegro Youth Orchestra for the last five years. He is looking forward to seeing the orchestra continue to grow beyond the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and dreams of the inclusion of everyone from an oboe to a tuba player. Some of these are former students: one of his previous students, Thomas Cummins, has brought his talent with scoring music by ear to Tester’s current group at Allegro by playing, conducting, directing, and supplying the majority of the music in their library.
Kathy makes note that the education trend in general is stuck in a cycle where the emphasis is away from the arts. While band programs are granted a unique visibility thanks to the association with football and performances at school games, orchestra and choir programs are often managed with limited resources and accommodation. In an ideal world, art programs would receive the focus they require to take their rightful place in the education system. Both Tester and Kathy have experience in just how much participation in music offers beyond reading music and performances. The arts have a place in math, history, and literature and the disciplines feed into one another. The Testers believe exposure to music helps equip students to do other highly skilled things. “No knowledge is ever wasted,” notes Kathy.
Kathy advises everyone, “find the thing that makes your heart sing, and pursue it.” Their four children—Aaron, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah—have overcome their own hurdles and shown how important it is to get up when you’re down and keep going by carrying the things you love with you. Tester encourages us to “see the world through the other person’s eyes.” It is this sentiment that builds a strong orchestra, fuels a solid education, and harbors a positive community. Amid an era of cracks that separate people both physically and emotionally, we are reminded that our differences can exist close together and be the tool by which we build something beautiful together that can make us all feel good.