Striking up a band tradition


Last school year, when Alyssa Leonhardt played clarinet with the Mount Hebron High School band, she was part of an institution with a long tradition of excellence.

But this school year, she is at Marriotts Ridge, and there is no tradition.

"We get to set all the traditions," she said.

The 56 members of the Marriotts Ridge High School Symphonic Winds Esemble are enjoying the advantages of a new school, including a spacious music room with fresh paint, new-carpet smell and plenty of space.

But there are disadvantages to starting a band from scratch. The young musicians don't have a marching band. They don't have juniors and seniors. They don't have a history. And until recently, they didn't have a sense of how they stacked up against other bands in the county.

On Saturday, though, Marriotts Ridge showed that its band stacks up quiet nicely. In the countywide adjudication, the band scored all 1's, placing it in the top tier of county bands.

"I think they were surprised," said Nick Ellis, the band director. "Being a first-year program, that's not what you'd expect."

"I think that's highly unusual," said Robert White, instructional facilitator of music for the county. "Because it's a new school, you don't have the opportunity to build a program."

Adjudication is a rite of passage for middle school and high school bands and orchestras. The high school band adjudication was held Friday afternoon and most of Saturday at Glenelg High School.

Each band played two pieces that it had rehearsed, and one that it had never seen. Four judges -- college music professors and band directors from other counties -- scored the performances on a range of criteria, including intonation, technique, musical effect and balance. Those scores are combined for an overall score. One is the top score, and five the lowest.

Of the 22 bands that performed Friday and Saturday, 12 received ones, 9 got a 2 and one ranked as 3, White said.

On Monday, students at Marriotts Ridge were visibly relieved that the process was over and that they had done so well.

"They're happy," Ellis said.

"We set the precedent really high," said Dan Hwang, a sophomore and the section leader for saxophone. "I wasn't expecting too much."

Said Kevin Eikenberg, a freshman and percussion section leader: "It was probably the best we've played."

"I thought we did really well," said Emily Huang, section leader for clarinet, who attended Centennial High School last year.

It has not been easy creating a band with students coming from so many middle schools and high schools, said Ellis, who has 14 years of experience directing elementary and middle school bands. "It's going to take us a while to feel like a band," Ellis said last week, before the adjudication.

Freshmen at Marriotts Ridge came from Mount View, Folly Quarter and Burleigh Manor middle schools, while sophomores came from Mount Hebron, Centennial and Glenelg high schools.

"At first, it was sort of hard because we were all coming from different places," Alyssa Leonhardt said. "So we had to bond a little. But we're good now."

Having no upperclassmen presents another challenge. "They really want those upperclassmen to look up to, and they're it," Ellis said. "That's a tough position."

Marriotts Ridge opened in August with freshmen and sophomores. It will be two years until juniors and seniors fill the classrooms -- and play in the band.

"We're missing upperclassmen," said Samantha Crosby, a sophomore who was at Mount Hebron last year and plays the euphonium.

At schools with more students -- Marriotts Ridge has 640 -- there may be more than one band, and students can audition for the level that is right for them. Marriotts Ridge has no such luxury.

But last week, before the adjudication, students said there were some advantages to being part of something new. Playing with a band that has a good reputation can be intimidating. But at Marriotts Ridge, "you have a little more room to grow," said Greg Mitchell, a sophomore trombone player who was at Mount Hebron last year.

Anna Leonhardt, mother of Alyssa, has a foot in both worlds. Her son, Billy, is a senior at Mount Hebron and plays the cello. "There are some things that Alyssa has missed, in particular the marching band," she said. "She was in the marching band last year, and Mount Hebron's got a terrific marching band."

But she added that being part of a new school is "kind of exciting."

"The neat thing about this year is we're doing everything for the first time," Ellis said. Next year, there will be a marching band, he said. But in the meantime, the young musicians haven't had much chance to perform in public.

The band got together over the summer with a weeklong band camp, and then played the school song and the national anthem at the school's official opening. A winter concert was the only other public performance.

During a practice before the adjudication, the band went through one of its rehearsed pieces -- the "Chorale and Shaker Dance."

Then Ellis presented a sight-reading piece to the students, and the sound fell apart. Ellis called a halt before the piece was finished. "You just stopped in the sight-reading room," he said. "The judge is going to allow maybe one of that. Then he's going to get really annoyed."

He tried to assure the students that "sight reading doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience," and urged them to trust themselves when reading the piece.

But later, he explained that sight reading would be the biggest challenge, because it requires maturity and confidence.

"I personally try not to put pressure on them, but I think there is inherent pressure," he said.

On Saturday, the students lucked out with "Capricorn Moon," a sight-reading piece that they considered easier than expected.

Ellis was relieved that the adjudication had been successful. "This kind of experience becomes the glue," he said. "This is a huge confidence builder."

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