Collaboration — not competition — is the key word for two local high school music ensembles headed to the national Music For All Festival in Indianapolis this week.
The real competition for Olathe East High School’s percussion ensemble and Blue Valley West High School’s symphonic wind ensemble was getting chosen to perform there. Olathe East’s percussion ensemble is one of only 12 percussion groups to be invited to play at the festival, while Blue Valley West is one of 26 invited or featured bands.
The groups had to audition with a tape of a live performance, recorded last school year.
“I knew I had a lot of kids coming back, and it was probably the most talented percussion ensemble I’ve ever had,” said Jeff Smikahl, Olathe East’s band director. “I told (the students) this has always been a goal for me, but I had to wait for the right group of kids. This was a group I targeted three or four years ago. We’ve always have some really strong percussion here, but there’s just more talent this year.”
At the festival, groups perform and get critiques, but no one’s competing for a prize — they’re all there to listen and learn.
“We’ll play and we’ll hear the other 11 percussion ensembles play. We’ll do master classes and clinics. That that’s a real educational opportunity, not just a showcase for what we’ve achieved,” Smikahl said. “A large part of it is the opportunity to be watching those groups and hearing what people in Los Angeles are playing, versus Texas and us out here in Kansas.”
Professional musicians come to the festival to give the master classes, which are usually instrument-specific.
They can cover “a wide variety of topics, everything from tricks on how to get better tone on that specific instrument to if they’re interested in a professional career,” said Cheryl Lee, Blue Valley West’s band director.
Lee said she’s also excited for her students to hear the other ensembles.
“It’s very inspiring to see people that are your age do incredible things,” she said. The festival “guarantees every band a packed house, so you perform for other band members, so there’s a deep appreciation for what you do,” Lee said. “(The students) don’t have anywhere else they get to perform where the audience is pretty much all band members.”
Olathe East’s ensemble includes 27 students, from freshmen to seniors. Blue Valley West’s ensemble has 39 students, also from all grades. Both ensembles have put in long hours of rehearsal to get ready for the festival.
“There will be groups there that will only have their top nine or 10 players, but I felt it was really important for the kids, for all of the percussion kids to go,” he said. “They’re exceptionally talented, but they’re really hard workers. They’re really intrinsically motivated. They want to put together something that’s not just going to make their parents proud or me proud; they want to represent the state on a national level.”
Seventeen-year-old Olathe East senior Sam Douglas plays the four-mallet marimba in the ensemble.
“It’s just super cool. Our band teacher Mr. Smikahl has always said his career aspiration is to be recognized in something like this, and the fact that we were able to achieve that for him is awesome,” Douglas said. “I’m looking forward to getting to see other top percussion ensembles in the country, along with getting to work with some of the top percussion directors in the country.”
Beth Lipoff: firstname.lastname@example.org