A successful performance at the Golden Horseshoe Music Festival last week landed Woodland Christian High School’s Concert Band an invitation to the National Music Festival in August.
The band’s conductor, Stephen Zurakowsky, says this is the first time that the Breslau school has been invited to play at this level.
“The adjudication was on one hand he said good job, but on the other hand he said if you guys want to play at this level this is what you’re going to have to do. So it was very much a wakeup call to play at such a high level. I think at first it took us all by a bit of surprise because you can become very complacent, oh we sound good and it’s happy. The adjudicator made it very clear after picking up on detail after detail that this is what it takes,” Zurakowsky said.
He says such a detailed approach to learning will help bring them up to the next level.
The jazz band also performed and achieved silver standards, which the concert band achieved along with their invitation to nationals.
The appeal for the bands to compete was based on the opportunity to play symphonic music, rather than pop. This was a good way to challenge and motivate the students to play at a performance level where all the details count individually, but also as a team.
“All of a sudden I think collectively we all felt like beginners again, even though we had achieved playing the songs and playing them well. Suddenly we felt we have so much more to learn now, and collectively I felt that was really great as an educational experience,” he said.
They started preparing before Christmas. They performed three pieces, one of which needed to be by a Canadian composer. They were adjudicated on the effectiveness of how all three pieces sounded. There needed to be variety in the music, with a fast song and a slow one.
“We went through a lot of pieces where they felt like they didn’t fit, but the three that we did decide fit really well. The last piece that we played, Arrows, is a contemporary composition that is very bombastic, very fast, very loud, very difficult. So it was a very good one to play for the third one. The second one was written by a Canadian composer and that was called Thread of Life and that was a very soft sounding, very reflective melody so it’s completely opposite of the third piece. And then Pitches at an Exhibition was our first piece and that’s a classic in our repertoire.”
The band is also planning a trip to Boston in April where they’ll get to play in the Boston Symphony Hall. They’re going to have a master class with a member from the Boston Symphony.
The majority of the band is made up of Grade 10s and 11s, with 45 of the 50 members in those grades. They choose their instruments in Grade 9 based on whatever their interest is.
“I just started the Grade 9s a couple weeks ago. One student is playing trumpet. I thought he would be better on another instrument but he loves trumpet so he practiced and practiced and practiced. And he struggled at first, but this morning just now he wasn’t struggling at all and I was like, ‘okay, you’re right.’ He loves it so much he made it work,” Zurakowsky said.
The band is planning to do two of the same songs at nationals that they did at the regional competition.
Making it to the national level is a significant achievement for a school of just 330 students, he adds. A larger high school of 1,600 students will have dedicated music students, but at Woodland a student who’s in concert band can also be on executive council, play soccer and volunteer on the spirit committee.
“They have multiple roles that way. It’s just amazing how they can multitask that way,” Zurakowsky said.
He says the competition has forced the students to think at a higher level and learn to focus on a task as a group of 50. They’ve also gained confidence from accomplishing a goal that wasn’t easy.
Just a year and a half into his teaching career at Woodland, Zurakowsky expects the concert band to only get better year after year.
“I feel like we haven’t hit our ceiling point yet. We still have a lot of growth that we can do. Students are very talented here. I feel they’re capable of much more.”