Do you remember what you did in your spare time when you were in seventh and eighth grade? I remember babysitting, playing baseball in the street with my friends, swimming in my backyard pool, and wasting an inordinate amount of time trying to beat The Legend of Zelda. I was also in the school band which met once or twice a week, and I took lessons for which I was rarely prepared. Our band concerts were twice a year, and I am pretty certain our audience consisted of mainly our parents because, quite frankly, they were the only ones brave enough to subject themselves to the torturous cacophony of a junior high band concert. This experience starkly contrasts with the experience the students have in Central Middle School’s Symphonic Band.
This sound clip, from Central Middle School’s Symphonic Band performance at the Illinois State University Invitational Competition in 2014, represents the caliber of performance for which this Superband is known. It was for their performance of this piece and two others that they were named Illinois Superstate Champions in 2014. Reminder-these are seventh and eighth graders.
A lot of time is spent before this band is considered “performance ready.” They rehearse as a whole three times a week at 6:40AM, a full hour before the school day begins. Their sections rehearse daily for thirty minutes during advisory period, and all students receive private lessons from wonderfully talented and qualified instructors. And that’s just during the school year. Marching Band meets for four weeks during the summer.
Now, let’s be honest. Any school that devotes that much time and resources to a band program is going to end up with a good band. But Central doesn’t just have a good band-they have a Superband. The difference, according to director Jason Freeland, is the attitude of the kids. “Summer Marching Band is all about developing student leaders. I walk alongside them during the parade. They’re the ones who are really in charge.” Take it from a seasoned junior high teacher that it’s normally like herding cats. These students spend the four weeks of summer band memorizing and performing music, but more importantly learning to lead each other.
These students also remain focused on improvement. In addition to marching in three or four parades, students participate in ILMEA (Illinois Music Education Association) solo and band competitions, Tinley Park Community Band Festival, SWIC (Southwest Interscholastic Conference) Band Festival, the Illinois State University Invitational Festival, and the ultimate University of Illinois Superstate Competition. They perform at community events, school events, as well as fall and spring concerts. Every performance is better than the last. After competitions or performances, many students can be overheard saying, “I played well, but I could have played better.”
This focus on improvement extends into the classroom. Central is a top performing school with between 70-80% of students scoring at or above state standards. But let’s face it, the future doesn’t need people who are good at taking tests. The future needs leaders with integrity and a strong work ethic. The future needs people dedicated to getting it right. This rare glimpse into the rehearsal process as directed by Jason Freeland shows the intense practice it takes to get it right.
Many students would crumble under such direct scrutiny or be intimidated about making a mistake. A Superband student takes that feedback and learns from it. As the sign posted in the band room states, “Results. Not excuses.” Sound harsh? They’re only junior high students after all. But these students aren’t intimidated, they rise to meet their challenges and, furthermore, strive to challenge each other.
At the conclusion of their performance as Honor band at Superstate this year, Mr. Freeland complimented the students and thanked them for all of their hard work. Without missing a beat, the students turned and said, “No, thank you Mr. Freeland.” The final yet crucial ingredient for making a Superband: grateful hearts.
It is now graduation season, and these students who have been performing together for the past two to three years will be performing at their respective high schools. It is the dissolution of a bond not to be taken lightly. These students have cheered for each other, challenged each other, and supported each other through a phase of life most of us would rather forget. Sammy Tuuk, second chair clarinetist affirmed, “Band is all about the relationships we form.” Some will go on to become great performers and music educators. But the making of a Superband leaves behind one undeniable truth: these students will never be the same. Their lives are ever changed by making music, and the society into which they enter will be greatly enhanced by their character.
A special thank you goes to Mr. Freeland for allowing me to capture on video rehearsals and concerts, and for his candid conversations which further revealed what a Superconductor he really is.
Thank you to Tinley Park School District 146 for supporting music education in such a generous way..
Lisa is the Reading Specialist at a middle school in Tinley Park, Illinois. She has been teaching for eighteen years and earned both a Masters in Reading Specialist and a Masters in Educational Leadership. Books, music, movies, and education are her life!