Springtime in New York City is an urban symphony in itself. Birds chirp among cherry blossom trees in Central Park, jackhammers pound at the pavement, music flows from cracked apartment windows and the scream of sirens and honking cars seems more subdued.
This year, Sentinel High School’s Wind Ensemble will add to the urban overture ushering in the new season when the band performs at prestigious Carnegie Hall in the New York Sounds of Spring International Music Festival on Tuesday, March 26.
“It’s only four high school bands performing at this particular festival and one college band so it's quite the honor for us to be accepted into it,” said Sentinel Director of Bands Lewis Nelson.
The Sentinel Wind Ensemble was chosen from a pool of international applicants based on an audition tape Nelson submitted nearly two years ago.
“They listened to thousands of different recordings of bands and we got in, so that’s really exciting,” said Tegan Schaper, a senior who plays flute and piccolo. “Just that Nelson put us out there is really cool.”
Nelson and a handful of chaperones will accompany 74 Sentinel students to New York City for the trip over spring break where students will perform four songs at world-famous Carnegie Hall, where artists like Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Billie Holiday, Mahler, Bartók, George Gershwin and even The Beatles have graced the stage.
“We are really mastering something at a level that students rarely see, at least in music,” Nelson said. “Everything counts, every little minutia matters of what we're doing. I mean it's been a year-and-a-half process.”
Students say that this attention to detail is one of the biggest changes they’ve seen within the program since Nelson started as the Sentinel band director three years ago.
“I feel like there is definitely a level of seriousness that has increased,” said Sentinel senior Richard Goldman, the percussion section leader and trombone player.
Goldman works as a teaching assistant with Nelson, sometimes spending up to five periods of his day in music classes in addition to two-plus hours he spends practicing at home every night.
“It has gone from ‘Yeah, this is fun’ to ‘Let’s also sound good while we're having fun,’ and that mindset has transferred to the seniors which is transferring to the freshman starting this year,” Goldman said.
The reputation of the band has also started to change, both inside and outside the school.
Schaper, who has always been musically inclined, contemplated quitting band as a freshman at Sentinel because it “wasn’t cool.” However, she said that perception is changing among students, pointing to the band’s numbers as evidence.
Sentinel’s band program has grown from fewer than 70 kids to almost 170 kids since Nelson started less than three years ago. The school had to create new ensembles and bands to accommodate the influx of interested students, and they’re hoping to start another jazz band soon.
Nelson said he attributes the band’s growing popularity to hard work and success.
“If people feel success, they're going to keep wanting to do it,” he said. “It doesn't matter what it is. If you’re not good at it or don’t feel anything coming out of it, you're not going to continue doing it.”
Schaper said she’s glad she stuck with band and feels she’s gotten a lot out of it.
“It just makes you a well-rounded person,” Schaper said. “You can read a language pretty much that not a lot of people can read. You can listen to it and understand it and it helps you in a lot of different areas of life.”
Nelson said he feels all of Sentinel’s bands, from the freshmen groups to the more senior groups like the Wind Ensemble, have experienced success on the stage.
Students agree and say the reputation of Sentinel’s band program is shifting outside the school as Nelson pushes the band to a level that is on par with, or higher, than some of the other bands in the area.
“I almost went to Hellgate for music because Hellgate was the best band and they’re still known as that, but our numbers are as big as theirs, our music playing is … we’re playing college music, they’re playing high school music,” Schaper said, adding that she doesn’t want to discount Hellgate students' abilities.
“We're playing stuff that’s higher up than what high schools would normally be playing,” Goldman said.
Sentinel band students spend a lot of time outside of school practicing and it shows. At rehearsals, Nelson instructs students to turn their music stands around and play each of the four songs that they’ll be performing at Sounds of Spring from memory.
As the clock ticks down to spring break, the students are fine-tuning their skills and their instruments.
Goldman said he’s excited to show people that “Sentinel’s here now” at the performance.
“We're just a school from Montana so I don't feel like people have much expectation for us, so we're just going to go there and blow the house down pretty much,” he said.
In addition to their performance at Carnegie, the students will explore the city’s robust arts and culture offerings and get a sense for different performance styles and venues.
Shortly after arriving, the students will head to the celebrated Blue Note jazz venue in Greenwich Village where they’ll dine and watch the Sadao Watanabe Quartet.
They’ll workshop with Brian Worsdale, the music director of Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestras, and the day before their big performance, they’ll visit the Liberty Science Center where they’ll play familiar tunes at a public “pops-style” performance.
The students will also get a sense of what it means to be a true New Yorker as they bounce around the city and check off things on a packed itinerary. They’ll see the Broadway play "Kiss me Kate," explore Times Square, walk through Central Park, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty at night on a dinner cruise on the Hudson.
Despite all the city has to offer, Goldman said he’s most excited to see what other schools are bringing to the table.
“Living in Montana, it's kind of easy to think you’re the only one,” Goldman said. “It’s easy just to focus on what’s going on here and not really think that your neighboring state is doing this extraordinary stuff as well, so it's cool to see everybody else and what they’re doing.”
Goldman said he thinks Sentinel’s band program is only going to continue to grow. The school is already one step ahead in constructing a new performing arts room with more storage and practice rooms.