Centennial High's wind ensemble taking center stage in Chicago

For The Baltimore Sun

Some musicians in the Centennial High School Wind Ensemble screamed and others cried when they got the news, spurring one student to post a video of the chaotic scene unfolding in the band room.

The Ellicott City school’s director of bands, David Matchim, had just told them they’d been invited to perform Dec. 20 at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, the largest international band and orchestra conference in the world. A joyful roar, loud cheers and a sea of stunned faces greeted Matchim’s intentionally low-key reveal.

The first high school band from Maryland to be selected to perform since 1973 — and one of only five high schools accepted this year — the ensemble has since received congratulatory notes from Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Director Marin Alsop and Gov. Larry Hogan, among others.

Phrases such as “impressive feat” and “unparalleled success” pepper their letters of praise.

“Many people don’t realize what a big deal this is,” Matchim said of the Midwest Clinic, which was founded in 1946. “For a band, it’s like winning the Super Bowl.”

Of the four other high school bands selected, three are from Texas and one hails from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the scene of a deadly mass shooting in February.

Matchim, a native of Canada who lives in Oella, said he views his student musicians as ambassadors representing Maryland, not just Centennial or Howard County.

“We will be wearing Maryland bowties along with scarves that parents sewed for us to demonstrate our state pride,” he said.

The Centennial High Wind Ensemble is scheduled to present an hour-long program consisting of 10 selections on Thursday morning in the Skyline Ballroom of the McCormick Place Convention Center.

“Carmen Fantaisie for Flute and Band” will feature soloist and 2016 Centennial alumna Lisa Choi, who is studying flute performance at the Juilliard School in New York. Harlan Parker, wind ensemble director at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, will serve as guest conductor on “Hold This Boy and Listen.”

“By the Sword,” a composition by Brian Drake, a band teacher at Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City, will also be performed.

This was the first year Matchim — who came to Centennial in 2011 at age 27 — applied to the renowned music conference that attracts 17,000 attendees from the U.S. and 30 countries each year.

He said colleagues persuaded him to enter while at the same time cautioning that bands almost never make the cut on their first try.

“I had this ‘aha’ moment,” he recalled of deciding to take part in the rigorous audition process. “All the stars aligned, and we were just clicking musically and blowing people away” with our performances, he said, convincing him the time was right.

Parker said Matchim, whom he taught at Peabody as a graduate student in music education, richly deserves the honor, as do the students.

“It takes somebody special to bring out the best in musicians,” he said.

There is one quirky element to the celebration, though: Since bands’ audition tapes are submitted and judged each spring, graduating seniors aren’t around in December to perform with their high school.

That means the rigorous selection process itself is the competition, Matchim said. Since clinic performances are not judged, bands selected to perform have already “won the Lotto,” he said.

This year’s 66 student musicians — all of them taking the Chicago trip — had to live up to the high standard set by last year’s band despite losing some members and gaining new ones.

Matchim says that’s precisely what has happened. “We hit some rough patches in October, but I set very high expectations and we all took ownership,” he said.

Jack Keane, a junior who plays trombone in the wind ensemble, agreed.

“It hadn’t dawned on us where we were going, so we weren’t really focused earlier in the year,” Keane said. “But we developed close bonds and worked even harder under Mr. Matchim’s leadership to rise up and take the mantle.”

Carolyn Frommer, a senior who plays flute and piccolo in the ensemble, said being invited to the Midwest Clinic is “the culmination of how far we’ve come as a band.”

“Band is a community, and this [honor] is a product of how much love and work we’ve put into it,” she said. “Mr. Matchim brings so much energy and his leadership style really suits our band.

“Performing on a national stage is scary — and exciting,” she said. “We’re so proud to be part of this monumental experience and to represent what Centennial is all about.”

Between eight and 10 percent of applications to the Midwest Clinic in all performance categories are accepted each year, said Jeff Daeschler, the clinic’s director of programming and marketing.

“High school band is the most competitive category by far, just by the sheer volume of schools that apply,” Daeschler said.

“It’s not just the musicianship, it’s musicality — an emotional connection to the highs and lows of a musical composition and [demonstration of] a dynamic palette — that distinguishes a great band from a good one,” he said. “There’s a certain artistry level there that takes great teaching to achieve.”

Daeschler also addressed the high rate of participation at the event by Texas bands and orchestras, which occupy 18 of the 44 performing slots listed on the clinic’s website.

“Texas is a very competitive state and it’s a very different animal in terms of staffing,” he said. “That’s why it’s really exciting that this is the first band from Maryland in 45 years.”

Parker and Matchim both said the high caliber of the feeder schools in Centennial’s district contributes to the success of high school bands and orchestras.

But ultimately, it’s the band director who molds the students and drives them to ascend to the highest level of achievement, Parker said.

“David is an incredible musician and conductor who knows how to build a good sense of community,” he said. “Not only does he know what he’s talking about, he knows how to connect with students and this band has a high level of musicianship as a result.”

Matchim praised the students for working so hard to come together.

“They all share the same vision and they value each other,” he said. “They sound like an ensemble.”

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