Striking wind ensemble performance precedes MMEA

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Kristine Cho

As anxious silence hung in the room, head band director Steve Mathews took his position at the conductor’s podium.
Lifting his hands, Mathews prepped the Wind Ensemble; with a quick breath in, he signaled the downbeat for “joyRiDE” by Michael Markowski, and the send-off concert started off with a drumroll and a cymbal crash. Themes of “Ode to Joy” weaved in and out of the piece through harmonies and dynamics.
The program continued to an Argentinean beat with two movements of Alfred Reed’s “Second Suite for Band (Latino-Mexicana)” and slowed down for “Afterlight” by William Pitts where assistant band director Patrick Sullivan took over conducting. As Sullivan passed the baton back to Mathews, the band continued with Kenneth J. Alford’s “Old Panama” march and ended with the complex and borderline chaotic “Two-Lane Blacktop” by James M. David.
More than a week after this performance, the Wind Ensemble will perform today at the Missouri Music Educator’s Association (MMEA) conference at the Tan-Tar-A  Resort in Osage Beach, Missouri.
At 4:30 a.m., almost two hours before most students even woke up for school today, more than 40 musicians congregated at RBHS, loaded into buses and traveled two hours to the beachside resort. This group of dedicated musicians comprises the RBHS Wind Ensemble, which performed for the second time in the past five years for the 77th MMEA this morning.
“I think they’re going to do great. They’re confident. They’re having fun. They’re going to do great. I’m looking forward to it,” head band director Steve Mathews said. “To be able to do a program like this, everybody needs to be able to rely on each other and have confidence, have trust in one another and doing a program like this has really built up the comradery and the culture of the band itself has just improved as the months have gone.”
In preparation for MMEA, the Wind Ensemble performed their entire program at their send-off concert Tuesday, Jan. 20. Following the final notes of the concert, the professional musicians from the UMKC Brass Quintet stood in awe, impressed by the abilities of this high school band.
“There are a lot of university bands out there that can’t play as musically and as well as these guys did,” Professor Thomas Stein, the quintet’s tubist, said. “They did it with fun, and it was a hard program. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this pleased at hearing a high school group like this.”
Mathews said his group is already very talented, “but if you don’t work really hard, … you won’t be able to play at the level they’re playing right now.” The group had been rehearsing and preparing their program for the entirety of the last semester. Last week’s show was one not just of ability but of hard work and perseverance following practices in the mornings, after school and sectionals scattered throughout in addition to their class time.
“Again, it’s a very diverse program,” Mathews said. “We’re doing traditional things like a march. We’re doing some contemporary fast music, which is more technical. We’re doing a really slow, beautiful piece that shows emotion, and we’re doing something very cultural with the Mexican Latino piece we’re doing. Every one of them requires a certain amount of maturity.”
Their program was particularly difficult, and effectively showcases the sheer ability and effort the band has put into it. Each piece has its own challenges, with the “Two Lane Blacktop” being the most technically daunting.
“There’s a lot of technical demand where people are playing in crazy registers of their instruments, playing very quickly, playing loud, playing soft and the tempo is very high, too,” Sullivan said. ‘joyRiDE’ and ‘Two Lane Blacktop’ have “a very high demand for musicians technically. However, I think that musically, the piece ‘Afterlight’ is very challenging as well. We talked about that with the students. It requires a lot of finesse. It requires a lot of patience.”
With its complicated harmonies and unpredictable turns in melody, “Two Lane Blacktop” was a force to be reckoned with, even for those who have been playing in band throughout their entire high school career.
“It’s a really difficult piece, and it’s probably the most difficult piece that we’ve played in this group over my past few years, probably one of the most difficult I’ve played,” senior trombonist Stephanie Stanley said. “There’s a lot of talent in this band, and that makes it really easy to come together and play really cool music.”
“Two Lane Blacktop” was particularly difficult for the percussionists of the wind ensemble, with the section having to face many difficult rhythms and new instruments. The section tackled the difficult areas efficiently and effectively, even taking time by themselves to get together and work out and improve even the most formidable of phrases.
“In the beginning it was really difficult. We had no idea what we were doing. Sticks were flying everywhere, drums were dropping — literally. It was just a mess,”  freshman percussionist Connor Squellati said. “We would have several rehearsals where we got together, not by teacher, but by peer to peer, and we really worked on things together.”
Squellati said he watched as it came from nothing, “a literal terrible mess,” and the percussionists took time with one another to tackle and master their parts.
Through the tough pieces, hard work and long periods of toil, the band remains committed to playing their best. They have not only impressed professional musicians, but collegiate band directors from across Missouri and the country, as well as MMEA judges – they did well enough last year to get them on the program for the annual conference.
“I feel like it shows that we’ve grown a lot as a band from the beginning of the year. If you’d have heard us at the beginning of the year, you would have thought, ‘Oh this is a joke. They’re not actually going to play this,’” Stanley said. “It was a mess. But whenever we go to the conference, it’s going to show that we can work together as a band really, really well, and sound good.”