Sophomore Ignatius Idio’s sheet music is covered with penciled-in advice on how to correctly play his part.
One note stands out, however.
Written large, underlined and followed by an exclamation point or two, Idio has written “It’s all about me” over a section of “Fidelity,” a march the band will perform in a few minutes.
“That’s to remind me that I need to play out more here,” said the 16-year-old euphonium player and Centreville High School Symphonic Band member. With only one shot at playing it right, Idio says these notes are as important as the ones on the page.
Dressed to the nines in tuxedos or black gowns and pearls, Centreville High School’s Symphonic Band is playing to a near-empty auditorium. However, their performance Friday likely is to be one of the most important of the year.
More than 20 high school ensembles from Fairfax County’s public high schools found themselves performing under similar circumstances during the High School Band Performance Assessment hosted by Centreville High from March 8 to March 10.
“These assessments do serve as goal setters and a means to get students excited about music,” said Westfield High School Band Director Stephen Panoff, whose symphonic band ensemble performed after Centreville High School on March 9. “They are lessons in group dynamics. How to work as a group for a common goal and how each individual affects the group and their level of achievement. … These assessments require groups to attain such high percentages of retention of material. We are shooting for 98 percent of the students achieving 98 to 100 percent of the music as written.”
The assessments are run by the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association, an educational organization that advocates for the performing arts. Student ensembles perform three pieces — a warm-up march and two instrumental pieces — during the performance portion of the assessment. Three judges, including a university band director and two high school band directors from Tennessee and Georgia, critiqued the bands that performed at Centreville this past Friday. Student ensembles were assessed based on a rubric, which included tone quality, intonation, technique, rhythm, balance, musicianship and interpretation and their stage presence.
After their stage performance, students are led into another classroom for a group sight-reading test, during which they have limited set time to prepare before performing a brand-new piece.
“It’s like a reflection of what we’ve worked on this whole year and how we’ve improved,” said Centreville sophomore Erin Seabrook, 15, who plays French horn.
The goal of the assessment, said junior and clarinet player Kristen Hoffman, 16, is “to improve our overall musicality and to get feedback from other people [outside of the school]. … There are three judges that come in and give us their views.
“Anxiety is a big thing and when you know someone is evaluating you, your confidence goes down.”
Junior Chan Lee, 17, a clarinet player, agreed, saying, “[The judges] don’t see the process. … If you mess up, you only get one shot at it.”
Students were split on whether the onstage performance or the sight-reading performance was the most nerve-wracking.
“The sight-reading’s harder because you’ve never seen it before and you only have one minute to prepare,” said sophomore trombonist Jaeyeong Joo, 17.
Freshman bassoonist Alexander Mendez, 15, disagreed, saying, “This part is harder because the sight-reading music is pretty easy.”
Melissa A. Hall, Centreville High School band director, said her band was well-prepared to perform at the assessments. Student ensembles receive numerical grades of I to V — I being the top grade.
“I know they’re going to do very well,” Hall said. “It gives us a strong goal to work on. Just to get these judges who come from outside the school to assess us. … We take the comments and it helps me see how we move forward.”
Melinda McKenzie-Hall, W.T. Woodson High School band director, said the assessments teach students about the accountability and teamwork necessary to play well together.
“I start out the school year assessing the skill level and needs of each group and then plan our ‘road to assessment’ accordingly,” she said. “Every year is different and every group has different strengths and weaknesses. Working toward band assessment always makes the group stronger by the end of the year.”
Band assessment is not a competition against other ensembles or schools. Each group — for example Centreville competed three ensembles — is graded separately.
“For lack of a better analogy, [band assessments] are the band’s [Standards of Learning] test. Only instead of getting scored individually we get scored as a class,” said Fairfax High School Band Director Alan Johnson, adding the performance should show off the band’s polish at its highest level attained that year. “Students rarely are excited about the music at assessment as they are about lighter stuff they may play in the spring; but it really is the meat and potatoes of what we play, and putting quality literature in front of them is the most important thing anyway.”
While the takeaway is a score and comments from judges, the effort to prepare for the assessment is a lesson in itself, band directors said.
“I like to view it as a culmination activity that showcases the work we have put in all year,” said Adam Foreman, band director for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. “There’s a lot of hard work involved, but in the end we hope that the students, audience and judges enjoy and appreciate the musical performances that they get to hear this weekend. I let my students know that it is a chance to showcase all the great things about our program that we are not able to usually share with a countywide audience.”