Bright lights, a big stage and a paying audience expecting quality entertainment give even professional musicians the jitters.
But moments before Meade High students Diana Holman and Isaiah Thomas took the stage on May 8 for the school’s third annual Steel Drum Concert, with guest star Josanne Francis, the two seniors agreed — they were ready.
“I feel really excited about the concert,” said Thomas, 17, who lives in Meuse Forest. “We’ve made so much progress in that time and I’m really excited to show the input we’ve put into the music.”
Every year the event has featured an acclaimed steel drum musician. Steelpan performer Liam Teague highlighted last year’s concert. Percussionist Victor Provost was the guest artist in 2017.
Francis, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, where the steel drum originated, has performed all over the country, including at the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Hall in New York City.
A Solid Show
Meade’s steel drum band is composed of 13 students, seven of whom live on Fort Meade.
Holman said she looked forward to the challenge of performing pieces arranged by a renowned professional musician.
“I really like the tunes that Josanne gave us,” said Holman, 17, who also resides in Meuse Forest. “They’re a little more complicated and took a little more work. But it’s always nice — that feeling you get when it takes more work but you play it perfectly.
“It’s that feeling of accomplishment that I’m most excited for.”
The ticketed event, which was open to the public, featured nine pieces. A couple of tunes were adaptations of well-known numbers like Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral interlude “Flight of the Bumblebee” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit “Fantasy.”
The setlist featured improvised solos from multiple students and an arranged solo by Francis toward the end.
Throughout the 90-minute concert, Francis and the steel drum band captivated and engaged the audience, who often cheered and applauded, as they pounded away and moved to the rhythm.
The fact that students, clad in tie-dyed T-shirts, performed so well did not surprise Francis, who rehearsed with the band a week before the concert. That they were so at ease in the oft high-stress minutes before taking the stage, however, was somewhat unexpected.
“I mean I still get nervous from time to time — but that’s good that they felt so confident,” Francis said. “It can be nerve-wracking, especially when you have to improvise.”
Afterward, both Francis and the students mingled with audience members, many of whom heaped praise on the performers for a solid show.
“It went pretty well, better than expected,” said junior band member Desmond Johnson, 16, a Patriot Ridge resident.
“From a musical standpoint, everything was locked in. But from an audience perspective, I think it was a good theme to listen to.”
High school music programs often complement their greater concert band with offshoots like jazz, blues or stringed-instrument groups. But not many schools boast a steel drum band.
Alex Scott, chair of Meade High’s music department, lobbied the school to add the band a few years ago. Scott is a graduate of Catonsville High School, where he played in the first steel drum band in a Maryland school — public or private.
“It was a really active band, and a lot of my formative experiences as a musician early on was playing concerts with them,” Scott said.
“When I came to this school, I knew I wanted to start one and I spent [my] whole first year begging and borrowing just to cobble together a group. It’s been a slow process, but it’s definitely had its payoff.”
The show was bittersweet for Scott, who is soon leaving the program to pursue a degree in conducting from the University of Maryland. Regardless, his focus remained on the student performers and providing them with a memorable experience.
“For a lot of these students, it might be one of those few opportunities where they get to interact one-on-one with a professional musician and [perform] on this stage here with them,” Scott said.
“Bringing (Francis) into Meade, it helps elevate the program in their eyes and substantiate what they do.”
Working with students isn’t new for Francis. The Caribbean artist also teaches music at International High School at Langley Park in Prince George’s County and is the artistic director of the Cultural Academy for Excellency.
“When I was working with them last week and giving them advice on their solos, how they improvise, they were all open to it and soaked it up like a sponge,” Francis said.
The Morning Sun
“That’s why I like working with kids. They understood it and were able to use it and I could hear it tonight — using some of the ideas that I gave them, hearing them interpret and use those same little ideas in different ways.”
Following Their Dreams
The students recognized the value of Francis’ expertise, both in the concert and the advice she offered.
“It’s really nice because you see the distance between yourself and her and how much she has accomplished,” said junior Andrew Johnson, 16, of Heritage Park.
“It’s really breathtaking just to see her play — how well she plays and (how she executes) her solos. It’s just amazing.”
Working with someone of Francis’ stature — a person who has made a living as both a professional musician and a music educator — also shows the students that a career in music is attainable.
“I think so many people view (music) as a scary career path to follow,” Holman said. “But when we have people like her come, it not only encourages us to follow our dreams but also gives us hope that this is possible.
“We can be where she is. We can reach that level.”