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The Road to the Midwest

Editor | December 2008

Roxbury H.S. Wind Symphony
Succasunna, New Jersey

     In the history of the Midwest Clinic, a New Jersey high school band has never been invited before this year. Director Todd Nichols and his group of 55 intend to celebrate with the help of  Phil Smith and Joseph Alessi, principal trumpet and trombone with the New York Philharmonic.  Keeping things local, the group will perform a piece written for them by New Jersey composer Joe Turrin.

     One secret to the band’s success is the unusual practice Nichols has of recording every single rehearsal, sectional, and performance. “If you record everything, you get a more honest assessment of how the band really sounds. It is not always possible to review every class period, but many students come down to the listening lab to review how they played the day before.”

Lanier M.S. Percussion Ensemble
Buford, Georgia

Conductor Hunter McRae describes preparing to take 31 7th and 8th grade percussionists to Midwest as a marathon and has attempted to pace things to keep students from getting burned out. Nine of the ten tunes on the concert are divided between three en-sembles; the tenth tune will be performed all students making the trip.
     The 2,700 students at Lanier Middle School, loc-ated just north of Atlanta, recently moved into a new building that includes a modern band room and small ensemble room. “The additional room gives us space to take the percussion out and work on techniques and concepts unique to percussion instruments.” Because of a school day that starts at 9:30 a.m. any extra rehearsals are held before school.

Walton H.S. Chamber Music Society
Marietta, Georgia

     No one was more surprised than director Perry Holbrook when chamber music suddenly became popular at this school. “These chamber ensembles started playing anywhere they could: nursing homes, school functions, and art shows.” Last fall Holbrook realized that his two top string quartets, including some of the best students he had ever taught, were made up entirely of underclassmen. He decided to make a tape and submit it to the Midwest and was thrilled when these groups were accepted.
     The students take a creative approach to programming, drawing on everything from traditional string works to Led Zeppelin. Holbrook says these players have “adopted a bit of a brass quintet attitude that nothing is sacred when selecting music. One of the quartets even appeared as the opening act for a local rock violinist. I don’t know how chamber music became cool here, but we want to run with it.”

Stephen F. Austin H.S. Orchestra
Sugar Land, Texas

     A veteran of the Midwest Clinic, Carolyn Vandiver has taught at the Stephen F. Austin High School for 14 years of her -year career as a director; she brought her first orchestra to the Midwest in 2003.  She remembers several incidents from the trip five years ago, the most unexpected being that she became unnerved right before the ensemble performed. “It was a surprise to the students because  they had never before seen me upset. I think it had to do with facing the unknown – of not knowing any of the faces in the audiences or even who was on the venue with us. I doubt it will happen this time.
     “Another surprise was that one student brought five days worth of shorts to wear. We told everyone it would be cold, but this fellow didn’t get it at all; he was used to the hot temperatures of Houston. Some of the students had never seen snow, so making their first snowballs was fun but also shocking – a few of them made snowballs out of ice and didn’t realize they could hurt people.”

Penn H.S. Symphonic Band
Mishawaka, Indiana

     Conductor Keith Rudolph’s advice to directors who are thinking of auditioning for the Midwest is to send the very best audition tape possible. “Last year, we worked intensely on the music in November and December and then made a tape in January that simply wasn’t good enough. With mid-March as the deadline for the audition tape, I briefly rehearsed some other literature, then re-turned to the Midwest pieces for a recording session in March. The band played the two selections for the audition tape in a concert the day after the recording session. Once I evaluated the tapes, the recording of the concert turned out to be equally good as the best recording session, so I sent the recording of the performance.”
     Each year five or six students from the music program go on to attend music school. “We also have a number of students who enroll at Purdue University and Notre Dame University; even though they may major in engineering or science, they keep playing in college, and I’m just as proud of that.”

Green Valley H.S. String Orchestra
Henderson, Nevada

     Over the years the Green Valley High School Orchestra has performed in London, Scotland, and Rome and even played in Carnegie Hall, but director Geoff Neuman expects that this year his students will have a very different kind of experience at the Midwest because it will be their first concert in front of an audience of music educators. “The people at Midwest know every note of the music you are playing, and they truly listen. Parents will clap no matter how the sound comes out, but nothing can replace playing at a conference where people appreciate the work you’ve done. There is nothing like it.”

Bloomington (Indiana) H.S. North Advanced Jazz Ensemble
     Director Janis Stockhouse has attended 40 consecutive Midwest Clinics as a student and director, and this is the third group she is bringing to the convention. The Midwest called with an invitation after a group from another school drop-ped out. Aside from having less rehearsal time, Stockhouse also had to select music long after other invited ensembles had made their choices. She recalls a frenetic 24-hour period of reviewing all the remaining music.
     Stockhouse has invited a stellar array of guests to appear on their Midwest concert. Legendary director Ron Modell will lead the band on a Basie tune. Stockhouse recalls that Modell often brought his Northern Illinois University jazz ensemble through Bloomington. “His students worked frequently with ours. Ron Modell is quite a mentor to me.”
     Continuing the Basie theme, the group will premiere a piece commissioned by the Midwest Clinic specifically for this convention. Dennis Wilson, jazz professor at the University of Michigan, wrote the Count Basie Midwest Suite and previously spent many years in the Basie band. Wilson will lead a clinic on the day after the premiere about playing in the Basie style. Indiana University jazz professor and trumpeter Pat Harbison will also solo with the band.

Grisham Middle School Band
Austin, Texas

     This will be conductor Betty Pierce’s second Midwest group. “The advantage,” she says, “is that I’ve learned to have a better approach to rehearsals now. The first time I was so concerned about preparing such a long program that I didn’t spend as much time on fundamentals. That hurt me. Now, I am spending the normal amount of time on fundamentals, and it is making the music preparation easier.”
     The Grisham Middle School Band may be the only one at the Midwest to feature a student on accordion. When composer Julie Giroux wrote a commission that included an accordion part, it took a girl in the ensemble to express an interest in learning to play the instrument, even though she had never before tried it. After a German teacher at Grisham loaned her an accordion, the girl made such rapid progress that her parents bought a new instrument for the Midwest performance.

Clint Small M.S. Wind Ensemble
Austin, Texas

     As she prepares to take her middle school students to Chicago, conductor Paulette Rainey says the hardest part of taking a middle school group is estimating what their ability will be in December. “You want students to work hard and perform well.” One highlight of the performance will be the premiere of a work written by band parent and composer Rick DeJonge.
     Because so many students participate in both music and sports, it can be difficult to schedule things so everyone can participate. It is not uncommon to see students coming to a sectional in athletic uniforms. As Rainey notes, “Some-times music is the most important thing students have to do, and sometimes it is not. We just make it happen.”

Spring High School Wind Ensemble
Spring, Texas

     When Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area in September, Gabe Mussella wasn’t worried about how missing two weeks of school would affect Midwest preparations. “Our students don’t balk at the idea of working hard on a daily basis.” One reason that Mussella needn’t have worried about his ensemble was the long tradition of excellence. “There must be something in the water in Spring,” he marvels when talking about the school’s multiple Midwest invitations dating back to 1980. He has invited Richard Crain, who first took a Spring High School band to Midwest to guest conduct the group in Chicago this year. Tom Bennett, who took the band to Midwest in 1999, will also conduct on the concert, and Brian Risinger, a Spring graduate and brother of associate conductor Terri Risinger will solo on trombone.