MOUNT DESERT — Most years, the season ends for middle school jazz bands at the state festival in March. But the Mount Desert Elementary School and Conners Emerson bands are having so much fun, they’re not ready to stop. The two bands are set to travel to the Great East Music Festival in Massachusetts on May 25.
At the state Middle School Instrumental Jazz Festival at Stearns High School, the judges’ excitement was obvious as the MDES jazz band got going on their three-song set.
“You really have a nice feel for this groove. This is not an easy groove to capture, kind of a new Orleans swing,” judge Mike Sakash of Fryeburg Academy said of Treyan Nelson’s drumming during the performance of “The Mudbug Strut” by Paul Baker. “Your program was fun, and it sounds like you love the music you’re playing, which makes such a difference. There’s so much mature playing all throughout the band.”
The band was one of four in the whole festival to receive the top rating, Gold. There are four divisions, based on the size of the school. All Mount Desert Island middle schools except Conners Emerson are in Division IV, and no Division II or III schools earned Gold. The other three Golds went to the larger Division I schools.
“It was pretty exciting for a little tiny school to pull that off,” band director Heather Graves told the Islander. “The kids were super pumped, and the judges were excited.”
Nelson earned an Outstanding Musicianship award, as did trombone players Quentin Pileggi and Brendan Graves and tuba player Topher Prokopius. Trumpet player Sadie Sullivan of Conners Emerson also was honored.
A two-trombone bit by Pileggi and Graves in “Fast Forward” by Howard Rowe had Sakash enthusing that he was reminded of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding.
“There’s a lot of musicality in this ensemble,” said festival judge and College of the Atlantic professor John Cooper. “You’re locked in on the tune as if you wrote the tune.”
That success inspired Graves and Conners Emerson teacher Gene Gil to look for another chance for these groups to perform. They settled on the Great East Music Festival in Massachusetts on May 25.
“Our bands really only have two opportunities to shine” most years, Graves said, at Island Jazz Night and at the middle school state festival. So she’s thrilled to be taking her band on the road for the additional festival.
“The camaraderie is so awesome,” she said.
Asked what factors contribute to the band’s success, Graves said, “This is one of the hardest-working groups I’ve ever had. The kids are intrinsically motivated.
“We work at it for eight months of the year,” she continued. “The program is highly valued at the school — staff, students and parents have a huge amount of respect for jazz band. We rehearse three times a week, and you don’t not come.”
Also, work on music fundamentals begins in kindergarten. So when kids first get an instrument in their hands, those fundamentals are very solid.