WESTMINSTER - When Jennifer Knox was 4, her father, John, gave her "a tiny, baby violin." She has been playing strings ever since.
Now a junior at Westminster High School, Jennifer, who also plays French horn and piano, said she has long since graduated to bigger and better violins. Until a few years ago, though, she could find no suitable outlet for the instrument that is her first love.
Jennifer Bankard, 17, shares her schoolmate's devotion to the string instrument. A senior who crams marching band and two part-time jobs into her schedule, she still manages about eight hours of violin practice a week.
"I would be lost if I wasn't involved with something musical," she said.
"I think I'm a well-rounded person, but music is my favorite activity."
When they won seats in F.A.M.E., a 55-member regional youth orchestra solely for string musicians, both girls found a home for their musical talents.
"If you are looking for a good opportunity to play strings, this is the place," said another violinist, Denise Crigger, 16.
The girls and four other county student members will perform with the orchestra at 2 p.m. Sunday at their high school.
The acronym, For the Advancement of Music Ensembles, is not a misnomer.
Since Lois M. Stout organized the string ensemble in 1985, its reputation has grown.
Bankard said membership in F.A.M.E. opens many doors for young musicians.
"Colleges in the area know the instructors involved in the orchestra, so there's scholarship possibilities," she said, adding that she plans to study music therapy at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania next year.
F.A.M.E. gives two concerts a year in Baltimore County, and often takes its music on the road, "performing pieces worthy of strings," said Stout.
Last season, the orchestra performed at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and now has an invitation to play in Switzerland next summer at the country's 700th anniversary celebration.
Kay Tippett and Les Douglas, county music teachers, asked Stout to schedule a F.A.M.E. concert here to expose area string students to ensemble music.
"F.A.M.E. is an exceptional orchestra with great depth," said Douglas, WHS music teacher, who frequently urges students to audition for the orchestra. "They will surprise the audience with sounds that are extremely close to professional."
Douglas said conductors of full orchestras often neglect strings because they must devote so much time and energy to wind instruments. A grouping of strings only allows the conductor to focus solely on technical problems inherent to those instruments, he added.
"You have to be dedicated and you have to practice," said cellist Amie Stutler, 16. "I don't mind the Saturday practice sessions. It's much more challenging than our school orchestra."
A relative newcomer to strings, Amie said when she wants to escape the challenge and really relax, she turns to her piano, which she has played for 12 years.