The Cockrill Middle School Symphonic I Band is not afraid of a challenge. Last spring, the group of plucky 7th and 8th grade musicians entered a national contest by tackling a piece of music considered too difficult for middle schoolers. Last week, their ambitions were vindicated when the Foundation for Music Education announced that the band’s performance has earned National Winner recognition in the Mark of Excellence/National Wind Band Honors project.
It’s an elite honor granted exclusively to the top 25 percent of the bands who submitted recorded performances for review—about 178 bands from 35 states. A panel of distinguished judges evaluated each entry: Dr. Kraig Alan Williams, Director of Bands at Rutgers University; Colonel John R. Bourgeois, the 25th Director of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band; and Gene Corporon, Conductor of the Wind Symphony and Regents Professor of Music at the University of North Texas.
The Symphonic I Band is conducted by Gary Williams and assisted by Matthew Harp and Ken Moses. This is the second time in three years that Cockrill Middle School has earned the National Winner award.
“Everybody always says, ‘You don’t give middle school kids slow music because they don’t get it; they don’t understand that,’” said Cockrill Band Director Gary Williams. “We wanted to prove that theory wrong. We wanted to prove that we could play beautifully, and we wanted to prove that we could make music and take our time with phrases and do things that they say middle school bands can’t do. I’m very, very proud of that performance.”
The piece in question is “Sheltering Sky,” a slow-paced, dissonant, lyrical composition by composer John Mackey that demands maturity and precise attention to detail. For the Mark of Excellence project, Williams submitted a recording of his band performing “Sheltering Sky” along with a march called “Sevielle” penned by Faubion Middle School Band Director Brian Beck.
But, before submitting their work late last spring, the band spent the better part of a year perfecting the piece through rehearsals, concert performances and a rare opportunity for feedback from the composer himself last April.
“‘Sheltering Sky’ looked pretty easy at first, and then we realized that there was a whole lot of technique in that piece,” said 8th grade clarinet player Kierstin Marchal. “We spent a long time trying to perfect that and just making it absolutely perfect. And when John Mackey actually came here, he had great critiques for us—any little specific detail that we might have been missing or how he had thought about the piece in his head and how we should play it. It was really cool meeting him.”
Mackey’s feedback for the band was gratifying and inspirational. “He was blown away and said we were one of the best middle school bands he had ever heard and just couldn’t believe that a middle school band could play that piece because it is so difficult,” said Williams.
“‘Sheltering Sky’ is really tough. It’s very difficult. Very challenging. But we just kept at it,” said Williams.
Difficult or not, the performance that the band submitted still resonates powerfully with those who experienced it.
“We didn’t get that performance until the Spring Concert. The kids were falling in love with this piece. They couldn’t wait to play it, and it was obvious in their last performance. Before that big moment…it was a big, huge crescendo and this big impact moment—I think about it, and I get goosebumps. We had some very good performances [during the year], but the last one…I still have parents come up to me and talk about that performance today, saying that they couldn’t believe that that was coming from a middle school band.”
“I think I cried the last time we played it,” said 8th grade clarinet player Sophia Chlebos. “It was the last one we played with that band. I listened to it again recently, and I just couldn’t understand that it was us playing that, and that I was there.”
But, for a talented band whose work ethic is inspired by the admonition to “Practice on the days you eat,” the results fit. Williams and his students are laying a firm foundation for the future of the program.
“We’re real big on legacies here,” said Williams. “We always want kids to look back at the program and say, ‘I’m proud of what I’ve done.’ But, we also want them to set up the future. So they can look back and say, ‘Cockrill’s still great. I remember it being great. It’s still great.’”
Story submitted by Shane Mauldin, MISD