Students Prepare for Special Performance in Front of Educators

Feb. 21, 2017 ~ The odds of being chosen to perform at the Kansas Music Educators Association in-service workshop may seem daunting to many people. About 100 groups submitted audition tapes, only 43 groups were selected, and six of those chosen are from the Olathe School District.

Among the half-dozen musical groups are the only middle school band and choir to perform at the Feb. 23-25 convention. This was also a noteworthy year for Olathe because it's the first time a small ensemble was selected from Olathe.

"There have been groups from Olathe performing at the KMEA in-service workshop almost every year in the past decade and they have represented all three facets of music in our schools: band, choir and orchestra," Olathe South High School Director of Bands Chad Coughlin said. "That does not happen in every community and says great things about our programs, schools and community."

Fine Arts Coordinator Martha Gabel is excited for the opportunity Olathe's six groups will have. She said only two middle schools had groups selected to perform this year, and Frontier Trail Middle School is sending three groups. More than 6,000 people (including students, parents and teachers) will attend the convention in Wichita this year.

Frontier Trail Middle School Eighth-grade Band

Band director Sara Smitko fully understands the noteworthiness of her group's appearance at KMEA this year.

"Not only were we the only middle school band chosen to perform at the workshop, we will be the first Olathe middle school band to perform at the state convention since our district made the transition from junior highs to middle schools," Smitko said.

She and her 67 band students approached this opportunity as a chance to showcase what could be accomplished by a typical, non-auditioned middle school band.

"I selected musical literature that was educational, challenged our students, and displayed accessible musicianship for middle level students in all parts of Kansas," Smitko said. "Our musicians and directors understand the rigor of a high level performance such as this and we are honored to represent the district and Frontier Trail as 'the' middle school band at the state convention."

Her musicians benefitted from the experience and skill of fellow band directors Danny Kaul and Jacob Wilson.

"We're all a team," Smitko said. "Preparing these students musically and mentally for a performance like this took a village. The band directors and guest clinicians helped with the music, Gretchen Harrison and I planned the travel, and our students' parents helped by providing great support.

"It's my hope for students to carry music with them well into the future. I love seeing their successes at high school and beyond. I hope they look back at their time in middle school band fondly, and I'm pretty positive this will be an exceptionally unforgettable year!"

Frontier Trail Middle School Men's Choir and Bel Canto

Choral music director Gretchen Harrison recalls the day her Men's Choir and Bel Canto women's choir members learned they would be performing at KMEA.

"In the choir room, there were whoops of joy and a few happy tears," she said. "Most of the students understood exactly what an honor the invitation indicated."

The two groups total about 80 students of varying experience and ages.

"I am excited because I've never done anything like this," one student said.

Another said, "I stayed motivated by concentrating on the final performance and the feelings we'd share after our hard work was over."

Harrison's Bel Canto choir was invited to perform in 2008, so she drew upon that experience and those former singers to help plan this year's trip. She contacted some of her former singers and asked for advice on how to make the process smoother and less stressful.

"Because the music family is very connected and supportive, Sara (Smitko) and I've been able to draw upon the experiences of other directors who've prepared kids for big events," Harrison said.

"We also built in a very strong and supportive structured schedule, and have a crew of enthusiastic parent chaperones ready to partner with us," she added.

Olathe East High School Nighthawks Jazz Band

Director of Bands Jeff Smikahl and his 20 or so jazz musicians are very excited about having the honor of performing at the KMEA convention.

"We have some exceptionally talented performers in the group and I am excited about the level of program I think they will be able to put together for this performance," he said a few weeks before the convention.

This is the third time for the Olathe East jazz band to perform at KMEA, but it had been several years, Smikahl said.

"Since I've been at East, the Wind Ensemble has performed twice, this is the third time for the Jazz Band, and the Percussion Ensemble has performed twice," he said. "I've learned to program some new literature that I've never done before, and combine it with at least one piece I've done with other groups and is very familiar to me. I did that with our last Percussion Ensemble performance and it really helped me structure the rehearsal plans better."

Olathe South High School Falcon Jazz Ensemble and Horn Choir

"While I am very proud of the South Horn Choir and Jazz Ensemble, it is important to realize that their success is really a reflection of the overall strength of the music education programs in Olathe and the incredible support our community has for the performing arts in our schools, from elementary through high school," Director of Bands Chad Coughlin said.

He's taking the 21-member jazz ensemble and 12-piece horn choir to Wichita, and noted it would be his third trip to KMEA with student performers.

"Our Jazz Ensemble was selected to perform at the KMEA in-service workshop in 2005 in my second year as the head director at South, and our Wind Ensemble performed in 2014," Coughlin said. "There are very few schools that have enough strong French horn players to even have a group like this, so those students took real pride in the tradition that was started last year and is continuing. It is not that common for wind chamber groups from high schools to perform at the in-service workshop, so the students know this is a special opportunity."

Coughlin's students worked with the horn professor from the University of Kansas, and he arranged for other clinicians to share their expertise with students.

"All of that takes some of the worry out of the routine when it actually comes time to travel to Wichita to perform," he said.

Many hours of rehearsing were required for the Frontier Trail Middle School Band as they prepared for their performance in front of music teachers from across the state. horn players practice
Frontier Trail band director Sara Smitko is proud that her students will be the first Olathe middle school band to perform at the state convention since the Olathe Public Schools made the transition from junior highs to middle schools. band director Sara Smitko

The Frontier Trail band prepared for their special convention performance under the direction of Sara Smitko, Danny Kaul and Jacob Wilson.

Submitted photos
musicians prepare for convention