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John's Journal Top 10 No. 6/ Let’s Spend A Day With Some Great Concert Bands

Performing, Learning, Growing At Large Group Contest

Posted: Friday, July 5, 2024 - 9:15 AM


In more than 14 years as an employee of the MSHSL, I have been very fortunate to attend and write about performing arts activities. I am an old-school sports writer, but being able focus on things like debate, speech, one-act-play and music has been very fulfilling. This story originally was posted on March 7.

I’m sitting in a press box as I write this, way up in the rafters at Xcel Energy Center. I’m attending the second day of the MSHSL boys high school state hockey tournament inside a mammoth arena that is home to big-time professional hockey. It is a wondrous thing.

My thoughts keep flipping back 24 hours to another equally wondrous thing. The crowd was not giant, the venue was small, but the atmosphere was just as awesome and the lessons just as important as what is taking place in downtown St. Paul this week.

The event on Wednesday was at Jordan High School, where high school bands from Section 2A Subsection 8 gathered for the annual Large Group Contest. Yes, the MSHSL is involved in athletics, but it also proudly oversees all kinds of fine arts activities, ranging from theater to speech to debate to visual arts to choir and band.

Let’s set the scene inside the beautiful auditorium in Jordan: Three judges sitting at separate tables behind the main section of seats, in front of three rows of seats in the rear of the theater. Most of the other attendees are musicians from other schools, awaiting their turn to play.

Bands involved came from Jordan, Belle Plaine, Le Sueur-Henderson, Sibley East, Cleveland, Glencoe-Silver Lake, St. Peter, Norwood-Young America and Tri-City United. Jordan and Glencoe-Silver Lake, in fact, had two groups performing, concert and symphonic bands. Eleven bands took turns performing on the stage as the house lights were turned down. After each performance (generally two numbers), one of the judges joined the band on stage and offered a warm, friendly critique.

Why was I there instead of attending the first day of the hockey tournament? That’s easy: Glencoe-Silver Lake band director Peter Gepson has invited me to the event for several years now, and it was about time I accepted that invitation. I wish I had been attending for years. I frequently post messages about talented pep bands, but those performances are just a slice of what goes on in our schools. I’ve always said that great schools have great arts programs, and Wednesday’s experience fully reinforced that notion.

In my own high school days, I was in choir and participated in theater (there is a black-and-white photo of me portraying Luther Billis in South Pacific floating around somewhere), but I was never in band. Thankfully, all three of the kids in our family were bandies. My wife and I believe strongly that their participation in band had a major impact on their happiness in high school and their success afterward.

During a short break between performances in Jordan, Gepson introduced me to two of the senior band participants from Glencoe-Silver Lake. As always when I talk with high school students who stay busy with school activities, I came away incredibly impressed.

Baritone saxophone player Miguel Arandia, who is also a football player and wrestler, told me how important band is to him.

“I like how much I've learned from music in general,” he said. “It’s the rhythms, all the different varieties, different types of music. I like listening to different types of genres. And the bond you create with kids in band is really nice. We have trips that we go on and it's really nice to have kids around you, it's nice to talk about music because your other (non-band) friends might not know much about it versus people who know about music. It’s a whole different world.”

Riley Spears, who plays the French horn, said “I really like listening to what we play and over time learning the rhythms and just what we can create when we focus on music for months at a time.

“I also really like how it brings people together, like people from one clique at school and another clique who would normally never talk, maybe they're in the same section and then they become really good friends.”

Miguel plans to play football at Hamline University and hopes to continue his musical career, too. Riley is heading to Minnesota State Mankato, where she plans to study criminal justice and continue playing music.

“It’s an experience that I've had for the past eight years that really just made my love for music grow,” Miguel said.

The music performed in Jordan was wide-ranging, from “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to a Swahili folk hymn to “Danny Boy” to “Simple Gifts.” The band from Cleveland High School – where band director Erik Hermanson is also the head football coach (which is awesome) – played “Flight of Valor,” a tribute to Flight 93, which was taken over by passengers on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The band from St. Peter performed “The Nine,” which is based on the story of the Little Rock Nine, the first African-American students to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

During “The Nine,” band members sang brief solos that included the phrase, “Show me the light, Lord.” When judge Karrin Meffert-Nelson addressed the band, she complimented their performance, noted the vocals and said, “When we play, it’s an extension of our voices.”

The judges in Jordan were Meffert-Nelson, a member of the music faculty at Gustavus Adolphus College; Douglas Orzolek, a member of the music faculty at the University of St. Thomas; and Mike Peterson, a retired music educator who was band director at Fulda High School for 35 years. They are among nearly 800 fine arts judges registered with the MSHSL.

When Orzolek addressed the band from Le Sueur-Henderson, he began a discussion by asking, “What were you proud of?” He offered congratulations to the soloists before gripping his baton and leading the kids through a section of music.

Each band’s preparations are almost endless. And like any athletic team, the roster of veterans and newcomers can be important as plans are made.

“I’m already thinking about potentially what we could be playing next year,” Gepson said. “Sometimes I’ll hear a piece of music and think, ‘That might be good for us in the future.’

“Major decisions get made once you know what your group’s going to look like. We know who’s going to graduate and we know who’s in eighth grade and will be in high school the next year. Some leave, and it’s the same thing as when a student decides to stop playing basketball or stop playing football. We’d like everyone to stay with it. You never want a student to leave.”

Gepson has been a band director at Glencoe-Silver Lake for 13 years, and the program is teeming with musicians. This year, the symphonic band has 31 kids (mostly ninth- and 10th-graders) and there are 44 in concert band (mostly juniors and seniors).

“It’s not super common, but sometimes we get kids in both,” Gepson said.

The GSL concert band played a Brazilian march called “Dois Coracoes” (Two Hearts) and “The Witch and the Saint.” As the band warmed up on the stage, the clarinet section struck a note that matched the tune of tornado sirens that were being tested … it was 1 p.m. on Wednesday after all.

Gepson said a tradition for his group’s performance is playing a march from a different country each year.

“I spend time during the summer looking for a unique march that no one in this country has heard, this year we’re doing one from Brazil. It’s not published in the United States. I’ll rearrange them. I spend A lot of time during the summer arranging a march. Students like it, they’ll say, ‘Where are we going this year?’ ”

There is a “scoreboard” in music competitions, but the bands are truly competing against the music and their ability to play well. The Jordan symphonic band received perfect overall scores of 40 from each judge, with the Glencoe-Silver Lake concert band next at 40-38-40. The music played by both bands is listed as Category 1, meaning it’s the most difficult. Seven bands in Jordan received Superior ratings with the rest receiving Excellent ratings.

The Glencoe-Silver Lake concert band has received 12 perfect scores of 40 points in the past nine years.

Gepson wrote in an email later Wednesday, “We got to Jordan in plenty of time, no one forgot anything, everyone was where they were supposed to be at the right time, and our bands performed spectacularly. Both bands looked and sounded GREAT.  Our students took this seriously and behaved accordingly. 

“Our musicians did a great job of preparing for this event and the performances were in line with that hard work leading up to today.”

As I sat in the audience in Jordan, among my notes were these three words: Performing … Learning … Growing.

A few days before the competition, Gepson had told me, “Kids might ask, did we win? It’s not a contest. Our goal is to be our best. We tell them, ‘The rating is a reflection of the work we’ve already done.’ If we perform to the best of our ability, the rating’s not important.”

Yes, it is a wondrous thing.

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] or [email protected]

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