McKINNEY — In 2013-2014, middle school ensembles from across Texas submitted auditions in band, orchestra and vocal categories hoping to be deemed the best in the state by the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA).
One of the coveted prizes each year is the title of TMEA Middle School Honor Full Orchestra (comprised of string and wind instruments). Only the best in the state earns that recognition. And for 2014, the full orchestra from Faubion Middle School is it.
“It is a huge honor to make it to the state level of any of the TMEA Honor Group competitions,” said McKinney ISD Fine Arts Director Roy Renzenbrink. “To actually be chosen as a TMEA Honor Group is the highest honor that can be given to any student musical group in Texas. This accomplishment is a testament to the commitment to excellence and high expectations on the part of the school district, the campus administration, the teachers and their students.”
Standing on a chair in front of the Faubion Middle School Honors Band, Director Brian Beck makes mental notes as he guides his students through a difficult piece. The music stops, and Beck offers a flurry of feedback. Every eye is on him, attentive, soaking it all in.
Beck tells it like it is. He knows what mistakes were made, what section they came from and what needs to be done to correct them. When the band is great, he tells them. When they’re not as great as they could be, he tells them.
“It wasn’t bad. You just weren’t the best right there.” Beck guides them through these teachable moments, and the band sounds better each time they lift their instruments.
One door away, Kari Zamora’s Honors Orchestra is tackling a few measures of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Zamora leans into it as she directs, engaging first this section, now that one, her baton punching the air with the rhythm of the music. A smile emerges, then yields to intense concentration. Like Beck, Zamora catches all of the fine details as her students make their way through the piece. She guides them along the path offering both praise and correction. They stop, evaluate and then press forward once more.
But, there is still much work to be done, and Zamora’s tone is insistent as they reach the end of class. “Practice at home. You’ve got to practice at home,” she admonishes. “If you have questions about your part, please come see me.”
It’s often tough love, and the kids get that. “She’s a really good director,” says 8th grade viola player Grace Werner, “and she challenges me, which is really important to me because I don’t want to go someplace where they’re like, ‘Oh, this is our lowest expectation.’ She makes us work as hard as we can and play better than everybody else.”
Beck and Zamora refuse to let their students settle for anything less than their best. “The level that we’re pushing our kids…very often there are directors who make excuses for their kids whether it be socioeconomic excuses or, ‘They’re just middle school students,’ excuses or ... fill in the blank with your excuse of the day,” says Zamora. “And, you know, I look at our kids almost like miniature high school students, and my level of expectation isn’t going to change. It’s just having the belief that all kids can be successful if they do x, y and z and just holding them to that standard. You’re doing them a disservice by thinking that they can be anything but great.”
These are middle school kids and middle school directors, and together, they share a lot of laughs. But, when it’s time to work, they work hard and both groups have shelves of trophies to show for their efforts.
All Together Now
So, it’s no big surprise that when Beck’s band and Zamora’s orchestra decided to join forces last year to form the Faubion Full Orchestra, they ended up achieving the greatest honor that a middle school full orchestra from Texas can achieve.
As if that weren’t enough, it was announced last week that they have also been named a National winner in the Foundation for Music Education Mark of Excellence Contest. They are the only middle school full orchestra in the country that made the list.
It all started, at least in part, because Beck and Zamora both like to win. “We’ve each competed as a string orchestra and as a band in the state process. We’ve been in the top 10 before. Brian’s been the runner up,” says Zamora. She had pursued full orchestra three years prior to Beck’s arrival in 2009, and had always wanted to see it come back.
“She gave me a couple of years to really get the band going where we wanted it,” says Beck. “The band started being really good, and the orchestra was already really good. Now, we said, ‘Let’s be good together.’”
The idea took two groups of students who, previously, had seen each other as rivals and gave them a common purpose. “I heard that before we started Full Orchestra and before I was even in middle school, that band and orchestra was kind of like a competition,” says 8th grade violinist Jonny Cogwell. “They didn’t really like each other, and they both thought they were better than each other. But, now that we joined together, we’re a team and both going for the same thing, for the same prize.”
“From full orchestra perspective,” says Beck, “I think it’s really cool to watch the kids grow closer to their friends that they don’t get to see very often. And on the days we rehearse, a lot of times, we’ll eat together, too. So, you’ll see this mesh of ... instead of band and orchestra, it’s like friends and friends. And they’ll just all sit and get to hang out with each other and have fun with each other.”
Combining more than 100 middle school wind and string musicians into one orchestra is no small feat, both logistically and musically. Each group mastered their parts separately, then came together to try to make it all work.
“It’s eye-opening for both groups because strings have certain ways that they like to start notes and the way they like to rehearse, and winds have a certain way,” says Beck.
“And, it’s interesting to see the kids react to some of us,” adds Zamora. “I know there was a horn player last year who pulled me aside and said, ‘You make really funny faces when you conduct.’ Thanks for letting me know,” she laughs. “That’s just who I am, and they’re not used to it.”
There was new terminology to learn on both sides and different playing styles to get accustomed to. Everything sounded different, but better. Lauryn Chatigny, an 8th grade flautist says, “Whenever we first played one note as a full orchestra, it was like, ‘Whoa! There are different sounds in here. There’s string color instead of the normal band color. So, it was a little weird at first, but it got really fun.”
“I am very proud of both the string students and the band students for coming together,” says Beck. “It was wonderful to see them learn from each other. Music is music, but each musician speaks a different language, and it took a great deal of patience, understanding and interest to learn how each instrument works best with the entire ensemble.”
Once more, with Feeling
Now that they’ve earned the recognition as the 2014 TMEA Honor Full Orchestra, more preparation lies ahead. They’ll enjoy the privilege of performing before an audience of thousands at the TMEA Clinic/Convention in San Antonio to be held Feb. 11-14.
That means a lot of new music to learn. “We took about 3-4 weeks and just sort of hit ideas back and forth, and right now we’ve got a program of seven pieces that we think will work,” says Zamora. “Obviously, if something doesn’t work, we’re going to fix it or find another piece. It’s around 35 minutes worth of music. So, that’s a big demand for middle school students.”
In addition to Beck and Zamora, Assistant Band Director Kara Kazyaka and Assistant Orchestra Director Christine Glass will each conduct in San Antonio as will Fine Arts Director Roy Renzenbrink.
“We couldn’t be as good as we are without our coworkers,” says Beck. “So, we want to honor them by letting them conduct a piece at the concert. And, also, we wouldn’t be as good as we are without the help of Mr. Renzenbrink. He was a musician by trade before he became an administrator, so it’s customary to invite your administrator to conduct – people who are important to you. It’s kind of a way of giving back and letting him know that we care about him.”
The talented, hard-working kids of the Faubion Full Orchestra take the prospect of learning seven new pieces in stride. “We’ll have to learn all that plus the band music that we have to learn,” says Jacob Harsch an 8th grade French horn player. “But it will be fun to do all that.”
“It’s a little bit of a shock,” adds Chatigny, “but I have a feeling we can pull it off.”
Over the last year, these young musicians have become undeniably great performing together – for themselves, for their school, for their directors and for each other.
“It’s been a really good experience,” says Cogwell, “and I think it will be a good experience to travel to San Antonio and play in front of that many people.”
“And, it’s awesome because we get to tell everyone else we’re the best,” adds Chatigny.
And, yes, there is something to be said for that.
For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Coordinator, at 469-302-4007 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About McKinney ISD
One of the fastest growing school districts in Texas, the McKinney Independent School District currently enrolls more than 24,750 students in 20 elementary schools, five middle schools, three high schools, four alternative schools and one early childhood education school. The mission of McKinney ISD, the champion for progressive learning throughout the diverse McKinney community, is to inspire and equip all students to explore, develop and express their unique potential as innovators, critical thinkers and collaborators through challenging, engaging and diverse learning experiences in vital partnership with the community. Visit the district's website at mckinneyisd.net.