Recruiting concert begins musical journey for many

Spring 2013: the Upper School Wind Ensemble assembles onstage, a half-circle around the conductor’s podium. All eyes focus on the band, awaiting the highly anticipated performance that has kept audience members coming for decades. The room immediately resonates with a rich sound, lyrical melodies counteracting with quick rhythms in a way that keeps the audience – especially the rising fifth-graders – at the edge of their seats.

That’s exactly why the Wind Ensemble, consisting of primarily juniors and seniors, performs every August to recruit those fifth-graders who aspire to achieve such a level of musicality (or who simply like the idea of beginning to play an instrument). The music is typically catchy, yet not very musically demanding – the Wind Ensemble frequently plays music from Mulan and some of John Williams’ greatest hits.

You’ve got to have a well-balanced ensemble, so we have to find what they’re good at.

— Paige Barber

“My favorite thing about the concert,” said fifth grader Sai Tummala, “was the songs they played.” On the podium stands Upper School band director Freddy Martin, who along with Middle School Band Director Paige Barber, brings the band to a level of musicality that transforms the atmosphere of any concert.

“A lot of the fifth graders were stomping the stands [to the beat of the music],” Martin said. “I thought that was a really extraordinary moment because that meant they were completely– mentally, physically, and emotionally–involved in the music.”

From second graders’ shark fins during the Jaws theme to the enthusiastic feet stomping during the music from Pirates of the Caribbean, the excitement from the Lower School audience demonstrates that the concert was a success.

In the following weeks, band directors Paige Barber and Tim Howard visited the elementary school, bringing with them a display of various instruments to put fifth graders to the test. Each interested student attempts to play various instruments to be ranked on a scale of one to five by the band directors, which leads to the final decision: which instrument to pick?

“The difficulties are that everybody wants to play the same thing,” said Barber, known throughout the campus for her successful work with the Middle School bands. “You’ve got to have a well-balanced ensemble, so we have to find what they’re good at.”

The band directors do it Sorting Hat-style: they combine the student’s choices with the most suitable instrument fit.

“I liked to see the instruments,” said Ann Myrick McGrew, one of the school’s newest trumpet players. “I liked seeing how they sound so you can pick one.”

Over the course of a few hours, a band is formed.

And so the band journey begins: 43 new fifth graders, two experienced directors, a group of instruments, and a profound eagerness to learn.

“Year after year, it never ceases to make me smile,” senior Hannah Rose Adams said, commenting on the fifth graders’ enthusiasm. “The kids are always so happy to be there and really receptive to the music.” These bright young musicians begin class under the instruction of Lower School band director Tim Howard, beginning with simpler music that increases in complexity and musicality through the years.

“I’ve played the clarinet for a year,” said fifth grader Benjamin Spinrad, “and it’s great to play with other people this year.” Starting with a spark of inspiration from the previous year’s spring concert, one thing leads to the next and a group of fifth graders are well on their way to become the musicians they aspire to be.

Technique and musicality isn’t everything, though. Band has been traditionally viewed from a very academic perspective – rehearsals with constant instruction from conductors, scales and arpeggios, ways to improve musical style, and practicing countlessly until the musical pieces achieve perfection. However, a glance beneath the surface reveals that with a greater sense of musicianship comes more personal benefits.

“The reality is, band is really good for the mind,” said Martin, seasoned with experience from his work with various bands. “For students to get started in band at an early age, whether it’s fifth grade or sixth grade, is important in the way they develop as people, not just as musicians.”

The Wind Ensemble too has its benefits from the recruiting concert, the only time to try and  gain young support for the middle and high school bands.

“They [the Wind Ensemble] need to realize their contribution to the legacy of the program,” Martin points out. “If we do a really good job with the concert like we did this time, then we have a huge class [of fifth graders].” The concert might seem like just an opportunity to play Pirates of the Caribbean as a kick-off to the school year, but it’s important to recognize its significance.

“Recruiting younger band students is a very important thing,” said Adams. “To me, it’s the most important concert we play of the year because we’re passing on the baton to the younger generation.” In addition to the more personal importance of the concert, the very few rehearsals and amount of pieces offer a musical challenge that pushes the Wind Ensemble to achieve excellence from the very beginning of the year.

That’s all it takes: one single recruiting concert. It’s the concert that provides inspiration, serves benefits, entertains an audience to feet tapping, and pushes the Wind Ensemble both personally and musically. And in a short few years, it will be this group of students giving this well-known concert, inspiring others as the Wind Ensemble has inspired them. The tradition will live on.