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Judge ye note
Ronan band director Jeff Long imparts some last-minute instructions to one of his band members before their performance at the District II Music Festival on Friday at Sentinel High School in Missoula.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Student musicians perform for points at massive music festival

More than 2,000 music students from around western Montana have gathered in Missoula to perform for an audience of two.

For some, it's the most nerve-wracking event of the year because they know they are playing to their toughest crowd ever: judges.

"My palms are sweaty and I get really nervous," said Steven Rice a trumpet player for the Ronan High School band. "Tomorrow I have a solo piece - hopefully I won't be shaking too much."

Armed with pens, a score card and musical expertise, the judges tell the performers frankly how they sound. Performances are ranked on a scale of one to five in seven different categories: tone, intonation, rhythm, technique (artistry), interpretation, diction and presentation (poise, conduct).

The points are then totaled and performances given a rating of superior, excellent, good, fair or poor. During the grading process, judges also congratulate the student musicians for their strengths and give advice on how to improve their weaknesses.

From the sounds of things so far, western Montana students are raking in big points.

"What I've seen is excellent - they're very good," said symphonic band judge Kevin Hartse, a band teacher from Spokane. "There's a lot of very good music education happening here."

"I'm impressed with the discipline of the students here - they're so focused," said judge Jim Loucks, also a band teacher from Spokane.

"I'm hearing some wonderful choirs," said judge Stephen Kalm, a University of Montana associate professor of music. "There are always some voices you hear in the fabric of choral sound that jump out to be truly extraordinary."

As welcoming as those praises are, the high level of musicianship comes as no surprise to the students themselves.

"This is an important event because it is the one time we come together and compete as bands - it's unique in that way," said Stephanie Morton, a tuba player for St. Ignatius. "There's nothing else for us. When you hear another good band you want to play better. It can be intimidating to come and watch these bands that are three times or four times the size you are used to playing with - it sparks your intensity."

For Jacque Stevens, an alto in the St. Regis choir, the annual event is exhilarating because it's a time when everyone is at their musical peak.

"Our school always does exceptionally well - we're pretty good," she said. "For such a small school we have such a good music department."

The credit goes choir director Lynn Clover, whose program prompted judge Kathleen McIntosh to comment: "The high school enrollment is 61 and she has 29 in her choir. I find that remarkable. She's done a wonderful job."

For smaller schools, it's often an enormous challenge to keep kids involved in music when they are expected elsewhere, agreed Jeff Long, Ronan band director.

"Scheduling always takes a lot of juggling because we share the kids with their farm chores, sports, speech and debate, and with their classes," he said.

But the efforts are worth it, especially when music class strikes a deep chord in students who otherwise wouldn't graduate, he said.

"It's kept me in school," said Joshua Castro, a saxophone player in the Ronan band. "My teacher's motivated me a lot. And playing here? I've done this, but every time I do I get better. It makes me practice more and think about more specific things like playing notes better and sounding better."

Although public school music programs across the nation are at funding risk, music programs in western Montana are riding a strong wave of support, said Paul Ritter, fine arts supervisor for Missoula County Public High Schools.

"Especially in this area, the arts are so respected and valued in the community that it reaches into the values of the school system, too," he said. "But we do continually feel we have to justify our existence."

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