Friday night, Kari Halvorsen laid the sheet music for her trumpet duet under her pillow for good luck.

She got a good night's sleep and a superior rating yesterday morning when she played the duet with James Corbin, a fellow senior at Liberty High School in Eldersburg.

Kari's good-luck gesture was a hedge against the shaky knees and sour notes she and the other 2,600 middle school and high school students faced in yesterday's state Solo and Ensemble Music Festival at Towson State University.

This is the time of year when the state's best student musicians each play to an audience of one in a small classroom. This audience won't applaud, but most are likely to reward them with a medal for "superior" or "excellent" playing. The honor is a payoff for the art of juggling band practice and homework, and the peddling of countless pizza kits and candy bars to pay for band trips.

As Kari snoozed the night before atop a copy of Ernest S. Williams' compositions for trumpet, she never dreamed how much she would need the good-luck gesture.

Just as she and classmate James started the second movement of their lively piece, a scherzo, James blew a few dud notes. He tried again -- same thing.

Kari gave a sideways glance, wondering what was wrong with her partner.

It took the sympathetic judge to figure out the problem.

It wasn't James but his horn. The judge proposed a quick solution -- a common green rubber band to hold together a broken spit valve.

"Don't worry about that," said the judge, Roy Griffin, band director at St. John's College High School in Washington and a former Marine Band trumpeter. "That won't affect your rating."

By this time, a flushed James had broken into a sweat in the narrow room, but he and Kari recovered to finish with the highest possible rating -- superior -- and gave long sigh of relief.

The Solo and Ensemble Festival doesn't come with the high stakes that some other music competitions have. Kari, for one, was much more nervous about her Friday audition for admission to the Towson State University music department for September.

"There aren't any consequences to this," said James. Still, it inspires anxiety in even the most seasoned musicians.

In this festival, the competition is not student to student, but student to music. The judge listens and reads along with a copy of the music, and rates on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 denoting "superior." Students who make it this far rarely get anything close to 5. They qualify by rating a 1 at the county level, but all agree the state judges are a little tougher.

Chris Cowman, a senior at Liberty, has competed in the festival for seven years and has never gotten less than a superior mark. Friday night, he couldn't sleep. When he woke up, he had a stomachache.

"I kept telling myself there's nothing to be nervous about, but you can't stop, really," said Chris. He competed in alto saxophone, earning another superior rating.

Between school, practice and hiring himself out as an accompanist, Chris also plays organ at his church. He has a grade point average of 3.96 out of 4.

Such a crowded schedule isn't unusual among music students -- James, for example, carries a calendar to keep track of his schedule -- who often are also the high achievers academically, a point music advocates make each time their programs are threatened with budget cuts.

University of Arizona and Kent State University researchers compiled data that showed students who took music had above-average language skills; that students who did well in math also did well in music; and that music instruction prevented some students from dropping out of school. Students who study music also have higher-than average SAT scores.

In spite of that, music performance classes are often among the proposals for budget cuts when schools run short of money, said Mary Ellen Cohn, festival director for the Maryland Music Educators Association and a music teacher in the Anne Arundel schools.

"It's always in jeopardy," Cohn said.

Many Baltimore schools have no instrument instruction, although the city does concentrate resources at the high school for the performing arts.

A year ago, the Carroll County schools proposed cutting one year of elementary instrumental music. Hundreds of students -- Chris, Kari and James included -- and their parents lined up to testify against the idea at packed hearings. Employee unions agreed to a pay freeze to avoid such cuts.

"There's so much thinking and interpreting in music," Chris said. "I think it gets your mind moving more."

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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