Countless hours of practice. Checking pitch for the thousandth time. Playing that one line over and over again to nail the octave jump. All for this weekend. Students of East’s music department worked especially hard over the last few months preparing for the Illinois Music Education Association’s (ILMEA) annual senior-level festival. Twenty-eight students represented East in the District 9 ILMEA Senior Concert Festival on Saturday, November 2nd, in the senior band, orchestra, and chorus.
The journey towards performing in last weekend’s festival started months ago when students began to consider rehearsing the audition music. ILMEA releases audition pieces and scale sheets for each ensemble and respective parts before summer break, and explicitly states what excerpts of the pieces students will be required to play or sing at their audition. Deciding to audition can mean taking on challenges within the music along with challenges of fighting off nerves, according to sophomore vocalist Ella Salis.
“I was pretty nervous to audition,” Salis said. “Being chosen for this ensemble gave me the validation and recognition that I’ve needed after putting in so much hard work.”
In some cases, students were strongly encouraged to prepare the audition pieces, as it was for sophomore vocalist Carter Mathison.
“I chose to prepare for ILMEA because it was the next big step in music for me, especially being in A Cappella, in which is highly recommended to audition,” Mathison said.
Making the commitment to audition for some was based off of previous positive experiences from ILMEA, as it was for junior clarinetist Andy Yin.
“I made it in middle school and hadn’t done it since, so I felt like it could be a good time to refresh my skills and see if I could qualify again,” Yin said.
Whether the musician wanted to audition for the band, orchestra, or chorus for the festival, they had to prove they would be prepared to represent East in an audition, and potentially in the district festival. Choir Director Chelsea King required students interested in auditioning to pre-audition for her by singing two scales and excerpts from two of the pieces that may be chosen for the actual audition.
“We can only send four students per voice part to the actual audition. That’s because in our district there’s just so many schools and so many students that want to participate,” King said.
Band students completed a similar pre-audition process. They each submitted recordings of their scales sheet and audition etudes to band directors Kelly Cooper and Stevan Rexroat a few weeks prior to the District audition date. According to sophomore violinist Vivek Parashar, this took a lot of patience and repetition.
“I practiced the pieces until I could play the whole thing with all the musical details and at a steady tempo,” Parashar said.
After students’ pre-auditions were approved, it came time to prepare for the real — more competitive — District 9 audition. Senior vocalist Sheila Erramilli said she found maintaining confidence a challenge during the audition process.
“Everyone there is so talented and it gives you so many nerves,” Erramilli said.
The musicians had to keep their cool, however, to reach success. King said she was impressed by how well students maintained their composure throughout auditions.
“We try to prepare them as much as we can, but when we get there it’s all up to them. So I’m really proud that they were able to stay calm, know what they know, and feel confident in singing that in the audition,” King said.
Once the daunting hurdle of auditions was cleared, results were posted and twenty-eight Oswego East students qualified to represent the school in the Senior Concert Festival. Salis said she felt great pride in being selected to sing in the Senior Chorus.
“It gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities as a musician,” Salis said.
The excitement of qualifying for ensembles was contagious, according to senior vocalist Charles Fluke.
“I remember going into the hall after choir the day she put up the list and I just heard screaming and celebration from others who got in,” Fluke said. “I just felt like I was glowing that day.”
Band Director Stevan Rexroat said how proud he felt upon finding out more students in the East band program qualified for the district festival than ever before.
“I think it shows that they’re dedicated and that they were able to work toward something that has delayed gratification,” Rexroat said. “Working on ILMEA music is a long process and if they’re able to successfully do that it tells them that they have a really strong work ethic.”
Qualifying students now had to prepare pieces (some familiar from auditions and some completely new repertoire) for the quickly approaching district festival. Senior vocalist Jordan Carlin said he had to rehearse his music in different ways than he previously did.
“[I reviewed] the music while adding emphasis to and focusing on details I had previously neglected in favor of accuracy on both rhythm and pitch,” Carlin said of practicing for his part as a second tenor in the festival.
Junior clarinetist Owen Ginnett also said he felt he had to focus on accuracy with notes and rhythms to prepared for rehearsals with the band at the festival.
“Technical parts [were] of concern for me, given that the conductor can fix dynamics easier than they can fix technique,” Ginnett said.
With the expectations to have parts well-rehearsed before the festival, Fluke said he was thankful for Mrs. King incorporating ILMEA music into A Cappella choir rehearsals to make it easier to learn parts.
“She usually teaches everyone the pieces in advance and we even performed some of them at our recent concert. This preparation took away my nerves and made it easier to just enjoy the festival,” Fluke said.
When the day of the festival finally arrived, the musicians began a day of rehearsals with the other qualifying District 9 students and their guest clinicians.
“It’s always really cool walking in to see all of these strangers … and just knowing that we’re all here to sing together,” Fluke said of being in the atmosphere during Senior Chorus rehearsals.
The day is filled with learning and improving in musical knowledge and performance. Senior vocalist Morgan Merrell said she was thankful for how much she was able to learn from the Senior Chorus Director Dr. Cory Ganschow.
“This director taught us a lot about vowel shape and about balance as she rehearsed with us before the performance,” Merrell said. “She was very kind and honest to us about how we sounded and how to work together.”
Musicians still had to work through challenges during the festival, too. Yin said that it took a lot of hard work during the Senior Band rehearsals to get all of the pieces performance-ready.
“It was really tough to sit through hours of practicing with few breaks in between, and sometimes as a band we struggled with doing our best,” Yin said, although the difficulty was not for nothing according to him. “I think that I did gain valuable experience through participating in ILMEA, as all that practice toughened up my technique and concert etiquette.”
Band Director Kelly Cooper said that the ILMEA festivals provided a learning opportunity for her and fellow music educators as well.
“It’s great because you get to talk to colleagues [of all the other high schools] about what music they’re playing, so you learn from each other,” Cooper said.
Rexroat agreed and said that watching the guest conductors also lends Cooper and himself new perspectives on teaching methods to bring back to East.
The festival closed with each ensemble giving a performance of the pieces they worked on throughout the day. This gave an opportunity for students to showcase all they have learned and grown from their experiences preparing for and participating in the festival. Parashar said his work in the ILMEA Senior Orchestra taught him more about how to approach music.
“I really have learned to be more detail-oriented, due to the fact that the smallest of details is what makes ensembles from good to great,” Parashar said.
The District 9 Festival also served as a way to connect students to the experience of playing music together according to Ginnett.
“Learning new perspectives and tastes in a subjective art is very useful when one is developing in that art,” Ginnett said.
More than technicalities and accuracy, ILMEA provided students an opportunity to express their passion for what they study, something Carlin said he appreciates.
“Music can influence how we feel, or allow us to relate to the situation of another,” Carlin said. “Music can motivate us to accomplish goals we never thought possible.”
The District 9 Festival also allowed students to renew their love of music, something Merrell appreciated amidst the stress of life in and out of rehearsals.
“The memories from ILMEA will remind me of why I stay up so late rehearsing, why I work so hard on one measure, and why I love to sing in a choir,” Merrell said.
The ILMEA District 9 Jazz Festival will be held Saturday, November 23rd, at Oswego High School.
Elizabeth Dyer is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl