McKinney, Texas - The McKinney ISD music education program has long been a source of pride for the district, with MISD student musicians garnering accolades individually and collectively at the regional, state and national level on virtually an annual basis.

2019–2020 was no different. While the pandemic shut down the majority of last spring’s UIL music competition season, the Foundation for Music Education’s national Mark of Excellence competition—which is based on recorded entries—moved forward as planned.

This month the Foundation announced that the 2019–2020 McKinney Boyd Honors Consortium Orchestra earned a 2020 National Winner award in the High School String Orchestra category, and the 2019–2020 McKinney High School Symphony Orchestra won a 2020 National Winner award in the High School Full Orchestra competition. Boyd was one of only five string orchestras in the country to earn National Winner status, and MHS was one of only three full orchestras to earn the title.

The National Winner designation represents the highest level of recognition an ensemble can earn in the Mark of Excellence project, and it’s the second time that the Boyd orchestra has won it since 2017. Last spring marked the first time that MHS entered the full orchestra competition.

“Both of those orchestras getting National Winner recognition is really good,” said Dr. Dan White, MISD director of fine arts. “That’s really solid. And, the nice thing about the Foundation is that it goes beyond state recognition. You’re being compared against a lot of different groups from across the country.”

The Mark of Excellence project is divided into Wind Band, Choral, Orchestra, Jazz and Percussion honors. Last spring, 145 of the finest high school and middle school musical ensembles from across the country submitted entries. Orchestras received recorded and written feedback from adjudicators Anthony Maiello (Professor of Music, George Mason University) and Jeffery Meyer (Director of Orchestras, Arizona State University, Artistic Director, St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra).

“This year’s entries were amazing, with many stunning performances,” said Managing Director Rick Yancey. “These young students perform incredibly well, and that is a testament to their talent, training and wonderful teachers! Even in a truncated school year, so much achievement is present.”

McKinney Boyd High School Honors Consortium Orchestra
Elegiac Poem by Gennedi Chernov
Concerto for String Orchestra and Piano Obligato, Mvt. 1 by Ernest Bloch

On a Thursday morning, McKinney Boyd High School Orchestra Director Michael Link paused to ask his students—in person and online—a question.

“Why does the composer want us to use string mutes on this?” This sparked a discussion about the mood and tone and intensity of the music—a strident, emotionally jarring piece from the classic thriller “Psycho.” And, then the music came to life as they launched into it, attacking the notes with fervor. And, even though it was yet early in the rehearsal process, it already sounded impressive.

That one can find such artistry in the middle of the day on a high school campus speaks volumes about this music program and its students.

Boyd senior violist Vivienne Garner is now in her third year with the Boyd Honors Orchestra and was part of the group that earned National Winner recognition last spring, and the Boyd orchestra that earned Commended recognition in the Mark of Excellence project in 2018.

“Seeing the progression of everything has been kind of amazing,” she said of her time with the orchestra. “One of the pieces [we submitted] was the ‘Elegiac Poem.’ I’ve listened to that before, and I never imagined that I would be playing it at the grade that I am now, which is something that I really like about this program—that I can play these higher level pieces that you wouldn’t typically expect a high school orchestra to be able to play. So, it’s been absolutely amazing to be a part of it and really see what we can do.”

It was a point of pride for Link that his students recorded the pieces that they submitted only once. “We used the recording from the UIL contest. We aren’t the program that does a bunch of recordings until we get it right,” he said. “ And, I think that says a lot that you can perform at that high level knowing that it’s just a one time recording.”

Perhaps even more gratifying for Link, though, was the chance to see not only his own students earn national recognition—but to see his contemporaries at MHS do so as well.

“That was a special group last year. I mean, the stars all aligned,” Link said. “I think the thing that makes it really special is to have two McKinney ISD ensembles on that national level. And, I’m really glad that McKinney High was doing the full orchestra entry, and we did the string orchestra entry, so we weren’t competing against each other. So, that makes us feel really good. We want everybody to be successful in McKinney—that’s what we’re about.”

McKinney High School Symphony Orchestra:
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, II
Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, IV. Finale

On a Friday afternoon, McKinney High School Orchestra Director Jeff Harvick was engaged in discussions with his own orchestra students about the finer points of their playing—upstrokes and downstrokes with the bow, when they should play with more volume and when to approach it with a lighter touch and why—and, though they stopped frequently for such instructive opportunities, Harvick and his students always returned quickly to the music, making the most of every moment to rehearse and perfect their craft.

And, when they put bows to strings, the beauty of it belied the ages of the musicians.

Last year’s full orchestra was a much larger undertaking than the group assembled in Harvick’s classroom—both in person and virtually—pulling in some 25 wind musicians from Director Ken Ringel’s MHS band to perform alongside approximately 50 stringed instruments combined from two MHS orchestras.

Pulling off the full orchestra required not only musical and logistical talent, but sheer determination, as rehearsals took place entirely after school two days a week for at least two hours at a time, for weeks on end. At the same time, the wind instruments were in the thick of preparations for their own upcoming UIL band competition performances.

“I was really pleased with the results, of course,” said Harvick. “And, it was really neat to see our name alongside some of the big, heavy hitters in the orchestra world from across the country, to see our name right up with them. I knew we were at that level… and I know the students worked really hard last year for that full orchestra performance. So, I was really happy to see their success.”

Performing in a full orchestra was a new experience for many involved, and took some adjustment. “Coming from the band side, it was a big difference,” said junior French horn player Annika Fought. “You have to listen to way more instruments and be able to tell yourself, ‘Ok, violin has the melody here; viola has the melody there. I need to play a lot louder.’ It’s just a big difference, and it’s a lot of fun getting used to playing with 50 more people than usual.”

“Coming from orchestra,” said junior violinist Annabelle Gibbs, “we obviously don’t know as much about the band instruments, and to hear that collaboration … was really cool.”

“I think it really tests your musicality because you’re having to listen to so many different instruments and different groups,” added senior cellist Arielle Mack.

If the setting presented a test of their musicality, they passed with flying colors. And, they took no shortcuts with the music.

“If you go to hear the Dallas or Ft. Worth Symphony,” said Harvick, “you might hear them play Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony no. 6’ or Dvorak’s ‘8th Symphony,’ and those were the two pieces that we submitted. So, it’s definitely professional literature. It’s the real stuff, played the way those great masters wrote it. These were not arrangements or watered down versions at all.”

For the members of the orchestra, the experience would provide something beyond even the satisfaction of the achievement, something that many have come to more fully appreciate over the past seven months.

“There’s nothing like hearing the sound of a full orchestra playing together—and being on that stage and being able to experience all of that together,” said Mack.

Well said.

As for this coming spring’s UIL competitions, Harvick is taking things as they come. “UIL hasn’t been canceled,” he said. “We are taking things one day and event at a time. I am kind of refocusing my goal toward bringing our music to our community via virtual and creative in-person concerts.”

The first of which is coming up on Oct. 9.

“It will be at MHS, outdoors by the loading dock/ramp area behind the school,” Harvick said. “Students will perform live outdoors, and microphones will be placed throughout the ensemble. The students’ music will be broadcast over FM, and parents will watch from the parking lot and tune in to listen on their FM dial in the car, just like a drive-in movie.

“That’s kind of how I’m planning my year—one concert at a time, trying to make meaningful performances for our students and public.”

For Link, it is also about the music over the contest; he’ll proceed as usual whether UIL happens or not. “Our preparation doesn’t revolve around UIL,” he said. “We aim to provide top notch performances whether or not there are three judges evaluating our groups. Our goal is to uphold high musical standards whether there is a contest involved or not.”