McKinney ISD takes great pride in the reputation and success of its fine arts programs. Band, orchestra, choir, theatre and visual arts students—individually and collectively—accumulate accolades each year that build upon and contribute to the district’s legacy of excellence in fine arts instruction.

This year, four MISD musical ensembles have contributed to that legacy by earning distinguished recognition from the prestigious Foundation for Music Education, a national organization that recognizes and awards outstanding achievement in performance by high school and middle school bands, choirs and orchestras—at the national level with the Mark of Excellence program and among Texas high school non-varsity bands with the Citation of Excellence program.

“The Mark of Excellence is interesting because it’s a national contest,” says McKinney ISD Director of Fine Arts Dan White. “This is really the one and only contest where all of these recordings from groups across the nation are brought together, and an adjudicator compares your performance with that body of entries.

“We’ve had one or two groups each year that have won Mark of Excellence recognition, but to have three within one year is pretty phenomenal,” he says. “And, then in addition, to receive Citation of Excellence honors within the state is remarkable as well. The competition among Texas districts is very tough.”

The winning groups to which White makes reference are the Dowell Middle School Wind Ensemble and the Faubion Middle School Honors Orchestra, which have each been named 2018 National Winners—the top recognition—in the Mark of Excellence program, and the McKinney Boyd High School Consortium Orchestra, which has been named a 2018 Commended Winner in the Mark of Excellence. Two-hundred seventy-nine ensembles from 38 states entered the Mark of Excellence competition this year in five categories.

In addition, the McKinney North High School Symphonic Band has earned top recognition from the Foundation at the state level as a Citation of Excellence Winner for 2018.

Each of the awards was based upon performances submitted last spring to the Foundation and adjudicated by a distinguished professional. While some of the musicians on those recordings have moved on to high school or have graduated, the remaining members carry on with new additions to their respective ensembles.

In a letter to the district, Mark of Excellence Executive Director Alan Hanna congratulates the MISD Fine Arts department.

“These McKinney ISD ensembles are wonderful examples of musical achievement and are a tremendous credit to your school district,” he writes.

McKinney North Symphonic Band

Director: Josh Kurzweil

“Laideronnette: Imperatrice of the Pagodas (from the "Mother Goose Suite”)" by Maurice Ravel

“Imaginarium” by Randall Standridge

McKinney North Assistant Band Director Josh Kurzweil stands on the stage in the North auditorium, ringed by students and calls upon them to critique their own playing. What did they do well? What do they need to work on?

They offer feedback to one another, giving both praise and advice. Then Kurzweil points them back to the music, and they launch once more into their playing.

They are in the thick of marching season, and the pace is intense. Kurzweil leads them through sections where they need to shore up the music, not rushing through it for the sake of expediency, but investing the time to move the performance a bit closer to perfect.

It’s that work ethic and pursuit of excellence shared by director and students that has resulted in the North Symphonic Band being chosen as a Citation of Excellence winner for the second time in three years.

“We had applied and won the award back in 2016, so to receive it again is just another real honor,” Kurzweil says. “And, it comes from really great teamwork and picking great music for our non-varsity kids.”

Francisco Mendoza, a junior saxophone player at North says, “At first, I was really surprised. It just really hit me that, wow, I put together something amazing with this group of people.”

Sky Kraal, also a junior, plays bassoon. “As soon as Mr. Kurzweil told us, I immediately was excited for us as a band because we worked so hard and just generally take pride in the fact that something really came of the amount of work that we put in,” she says. “We already knew we had done our best and worked really hard, but just to get recognized for that was really important for everyone in the band, I think.”

But, perhaps even more than the success and accolades, Francisco and Sky both point to the importance of community, and it’s a theme that is echoed in each of these groups of winners.

“I really make a point as section leader, to make sure that everyone in my section, including the new kids, the freshmen…feel welcome,” Sky says. “I just really want to make sure that everyone can not only look at the big product and be happy with the music and the marching and all of that, but also be happy about the family and support system they have here.”

McKinney Boyd Honors Consortium Orchestra

Director: Michael Link

Asst. Director: Michelle New

“Holberg Suite, Mvt. 1 Prelude, Mvt. 2 Sarabande” by Edvard Grieg

“Sinfonia in e minor, Mvt. 1 Allegro” by Felix Mendelssohn

McKinney Boyd Orchestra Director Michael Link steps down from the riser where he has been leading the Boyd Honors Consortium Orchestra and turns the reins over to the students.

He stands off to the side and follows along on the score as they continue to play, the music diving and dipping and rising to a crescendo. Even an untrained ear can hear that they are very good.

Link picks up on all the subtle nuances, of course, that they need to fine tune, but listening to these high school students work their way through college level music, it is apparent why they have been chosen as a Commended Winner in the Mark of Excellence. It’s the second year in a row that they’ve received recognition from the Foundation.

Junior cellist Nick Noble is proud of that accomplishment. “We were very, very excited [to learn about the award],” he says. “On a personal level for all of us, we were part of something that was nationally recognized—which is not something a whole lot of schools can say.”

Senior violinist Abigail Puhala was also part of the group that was recognized last year. “That was something that we were super proud of, but I think one of the things that when we found out that we had done it again, it really just reaffirmed the quality of our program as a whole and how much we’ve developed since its beginning,” she says.

Seated at his desk after rehearsal, Link echoes that sentiment, “I think that’s the best part—seeing that consistency since we were recognized the year before, too,” he says. “So I think that shows it wasn’t a one-hit wonder. We have consistency, and that makes me feel like we’re headed in the right direction—when you have that kind of recognition twice in a row.”

The success seems to emerge naturally from the culture they’ve built. “What I enjoy most, more than anything is probably the community,” says Nick. “I have a great group of friends [in orchestra]. It’s just a group of people that I can rely on and trust.”

Abigail points to the same thing. “What I really love about it is the sense of family that it promotes,” she says. “We’re like a family. We take care of each other. We support each other, and we accomplish great things together.”

Dowell Middle School Wind Ensemble

Director: Tiffany Lisko

Asst. Director: Clark Eacker

“J.S. Jig” by Brant Karrick

“Fortress” by Frank Ticheli

Director Tiffany Lisko and the Dowell Wind Ensemble have earned National Winner status on their very first submission to the Mark of Excellence.

“It’s really something that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years—that it would be an amazing goal for this group,” says Lisko.

“I wanted to just have an opportunity for these kids to have somebody recognize what they’ve been doing every day for the last couple of years. I was hopeful [that we would be recognized] because I felt like at the end of last year we had a very wonderful last couple of performances, and I was extremely happy with our recording,” she says.

For eighth grade trombone player Nick Thorson and eighth grade tenor sax player Tori Apligian, the award validates the effort they put into it.

“I’m pretty proud of how we did in general as a band,” Nick says. “It was hard music, but we worked hard and learned it, and I think we did pretty well.”

Tori adds, “I knew we did well, but I didn’t know we did that well. I’m proud of the work of all my saxophone friends and everyone else in the band. It’s a nice community. This is something I really love doing, and I take this very seriously. I love everybody here.”

“I want the eighth graders to be the leaders, and they’re training the seventh graders in their footsteps, so they can pass it on to the next generation,” says Lisko. “Even if some of these kids weren’t in that particular group last year, they know they are part of something special. They look up to the leaders.”

Faubion Middle School Honors Orchestra

Director: Kari Zamora

Asst. Director: Jacob Cortez

“Concerto in G Major RV 140” by Vivaldi

“Incantations” by Meyer

Eighth grade cellist Brian Hua and eighth grade violinist Ruhi Patel stand outside of the Faubion Middle School orchestra room talking about receiving the news that their orchestra had been named a Mark of Excellence National Winner.

“I was very excited,” Brian says. “I went to go tell all my friends and congratulate all of the people who played with us, too—all of the honors members last year.”

Ruhi adds, “I was just really elated about it. The whole journey was just really nice.”

Success is not new to the Faubion Orchestra. Over the last several years, they’ve earned the Mark of Excellence award, been chosen to play at the internationally famous Midwest Clinic, made the state orchestra finals and were half of the 2014 TMEA Middle School Honor Full Orchestra (that also included the Faubion Honors Band)—the best in the state.

Even so, “Everyone was absolutely thrilled [about this year’s award],” says Director Kari Zamora. “It’s fantastic. I feel like this recognition validates the kids’ hard work, and it shows them that there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We’ve created such a culture for the past several years here at Faubion. They see the accomplishments of past groups, so they know it’s possible.”

If the growth of that culture has been nurtured by past success, it has been cultivated by student leadership. The eighth grade members of the Honors Orchestra don’t just help the seventh graders that they play alongside; they invest in the sixth grade beginners who will one day take their place in the Honors Orchestra.

“I like how in every single level of orchestra at Faubion, there’s always a family that goes with it,” Brian says. “You always fit in. There’s always a place for you.”

To that end, these eighth grade musicians invest their own time in mentoring their younger peers. “We help them in the mornings when we are practicing in the orchestra room,” says Ruhi.

“We help lead them, help them practice and help them get the right techniques,” adds Brian. Most importantly, “We get to know the sixth graders as friends first and then we start helping them. So, they know who we are, and they can ask for help whenever they need it.”

Zamora is also quick to point out that, as a program, they are able to do all of these things because of the support they receive from the district.

“A huge part of our success has been all of our administrators’ support both at the campus level and at the district level,” she says. “We are very blessed to have both the financial and emotional support of a great administration.”

For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Coordinator, at 469-302-4007 or smauldin@mckinneyisd.net.