This article originates from the 5th issue of the San Joaquin County Office of Education's Outlook magazine.
About an hour before the first performers took the stage for the San Joaquin County Middle School Honors Concert on March 2, the student musicians roamed the maze of tunnels behind the Warren Atherton Auditorium at San Joaquin Delta College.
One corridor led to a separate stage facing an empty auditorium. Here, the orchestra students picked up their instruments and began to gather around Erin Wells, their conductor.
The cacophony of errant bow strokes and nervous plucking of strings faded into silence as the impromptu semicircle around Wells took shape.
She loosened up the students by leading them in some scales and having them play some passages out of the night’s set list from memory.
“Just put it all out on the stage. Give it your all tonight,” said Wells, a music instructor at Lodi Unified School District, and the guest conductor for the orchestra, which made up one-third of the performances at the Middle School Honors Concert. The other two ensembles were the choir and the band.
The three groups performed separately, but the path of all the performers was similar. The student musicians typically excelled in their local musical programs and auditioned for limited places in their groups. They had approximately one month to rehearse together as an ensemble.
But they were ready on the night of the concert.
“At the beginning we were a little bit all over the place. But now we’ve learned how to blend all of our voices together, and we’ve learned how to harmonize more than we had at the beginning,” said Emma, an eighth-grader from Manteca Unified School District’s Golden West Elementary School. Along the way, she said she also made friends from other parts of the county.
Emma’s voice shook slightly as she described her preperformance jitters.
As far as middle school musicians go, Previn is a veteran. This was the fourth Honors Concert for the Sierra Middle School (Lincoln Unified School District) eighth-grader. He has a routine to get himself ready before a big performance. “I like to tell myself: ‘You got this. This is easy. You’ve done this before,’ even though it’s something that is really hard,” he said.
Though the alto saxophone player was a little bit nervous about a solo he would soon play, Previn said that the band had really come together during rehearsals. “It was everyone playing their individual parts at that first rehearsal, and now we’re all moving as one, coherent group,” he said.
While the performers joked around or psyched themselves up, their families and friends began to fill the seats of the Warren Atherton Auditorium. Parents shared their children’s nervousness. More than that, they were very proud.
Tonight, the same stage where the Stockton Symphony performed belonged to the finest middle school musicians of San Joaquin County.
The house lights dimmed.
The concert was about to begin.
A month earlier, the middle schoolers had their first rehearsal in Stockton on Feb. 7. The choir and orchestra students practiced at Lincoln Unified School District’s Sierra Middle School while the band held its rehearsal at the district’s neighboring Lincoln High School.
In the high school’s band room, about 100 students gathered together for the first time. Some students came from music programs with just a handful of students. Even for some students from larger programs, this would be the first time they played with such a large number of students and types of instruments.
Conductor Jonathan Raman started breaking the ice and making the students feel comfortable, engaging them in breathing and other warm-up exercises. Then he had them play some scales.
They played slowly and evenly, filling the band room with a huge sound as these students from across the county, from different programs and on a wide variety of instruments played together -- in unison -- for the first time.
On top of everything else that was new about the experience, many of these students would be pushing themselves to learn to play something more challenging than they were used to, said Raman, the music director of Merrill F. West High School in the Tracy Unified School District. They are learning more-difficult parts of music on their own that come together in a more-complicated way when they all play together, he said.
To get ready for the big performance, the students must learn to overcome obstacles, he said. “When they rehearse, they have to jump over those bumps, and maybe get a little bruised here and there,” he said. “But after that? Not only do you become a better musician, you become a better person in general.” He said it is also giving them a glimpse of what it will be like to continue playing music in high school.
The guest conductors guide the middle school students in their new challenge. In addition to Raman conducting the band and Wells leading the orchestra, Linden High School (Linden Unified School District) Choral Director Ken Kell was the guest conductor for the choir.
“That is how the program is designed. Middle school students perform high school repertoire; high school students work with college directors and perform collegiate music,” said Sandra Wendell, San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE) visual and performing arts liaison.
The honors concerts are put together by the SJCOE and the San Joaquin County Music Educators Association, which is made up of music teachers and directors throughout the county. The third sponsor of the concerts is San Joaquin Delta College, which provides the venue.
The honors concerts help provide more depth to music education throughout the county, helping students progress further in their time at school. It is important to start early, which is why middle school instructors work with elementary schools to prepare students to play music in middle school, Wendell said.
Having an opportunity to learn music in school is important, and not just for promoting brain development, she said.
“Not every student enjoys the academic part of school and it’s a way for students to excel in school, when they may not have been able to excel before. Theatre does the same things for kids. Sports does the same things for kids,” she said. “Sometimes kids need a reason to go to school. And if this is their reason -- to be part of the band or be part of the choir or be part of the orchestra -- they’re in school and they’re keeping their grades up because they don’t want to lose that privilege.”
Over a month of rehearsals, the guest conductors guided their middle school musicians until they were ready.
During the final rehearsal before the show, Raman gave his band instructions on what to do when it was time to meet their audience.
He told them how to get in position and that it was okay to play a few notes. “Feel the stage,” he said.
He also asked them to resist the urge to play “Baby Shark,” a simple and repetitive children’s song that went viral on the internet and is also popular among elite middle school musicians.
Dressed in formal black and white, the children of the choir had lined up backstage, just out of view of the Atherton Auditorium audience. The children chatted away in nervous and hushed tones, while the audience listened to introductory speakers.
Then it was time. They walked into the spotlight and began to sing. Emma, the student from Golden West, blended with the rest of the choir as their songs filled the vast auditorium. They brought the house down.
When it was their turn, the members of the band took the stage before Raman. They did just what their conductor had said and got a good feel for the stage. At one point during the performance, Raman took a moment to recognize the soloists. Previn, from Sierra Middle School, joined his peers as they smiled widely and looked out at the crowd and took in the applause.
When the concert was over, the orchestra members gathered in excited groups on the stage in the empty auditorium where they had warmed up.
Faith, a student from Tyler Skills Elementary School (Stockton Unified School District) who played the viola, said she knew the orchestra performed well. It was exciting, but she felt relieved. Her heart wasn’t pounding like it was before the performance, she said.
Eric, her classmate who played the violin, was still feeling the rush of being on stage.
“I feel so happy. Marvelous. I feel great. This is my second year and it’s, like amazing,” he said.
As an eighth-grader, this will be his last Middle School Honors Concert. But Eric is already excited about trying out for the High School Honors Concert next year.