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HHS band prepares for return to Carnegie Hall

Trombone players rehearse.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a hundred musicians are going over and over the pieces that they will perform in a month.


Until the piece sounds right, Fran Shelton, the longtime band director at Hendersonville High School, will push. If the clarinets don't come in on cue, the band will play the measure again. If a sax player is out of tune, she'll call out the sax player. If a trumpet player cracks a note, woe is the life of that trumpet player.
IMG 0043Fran Shelton directs HHS band during a rehearsal.The band members are dressed in T-shirts and sneakers, like they would rather be outside in the nice weather. Inside the band room, things remain dead serious. This time of year, the theme on Oakland Street is all work and no play.
"Get the idea?" Shelton says after the band had finally nailed a rousing section of an upbeat march called "Men of Ohio." "That sounded a lot better and it made more sense musically."
It's a rare and small triumph on the road to New York. There is a lot more rehearsal ahead as the musicians live out the sturdy old cliché about how one gets to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.
Ten years since the band last traveled to the most famous performing arts hall in America, the HHS band is headed back.
The school will send 107 band students on two 56-seat charter buses — for budget reasons trimmed by one from what had been the band's practice of three buses. Instead of boarding buses with the students, 16 parent-chaperones will fly separately or drive up in vans, along with a rental truck carrying the luggage.
"We'll have a nurse and a teacher on each bus," Shelton said Monday morning during a free period at HHS.
HHS has long been known for the quality of its band program, among other attributes like its dominance in 1-A and 2-A volleyball and its strongly held traditions like its senior play and Move Up ceremony. At HHS, band kids aren't thought of as band nerds, in part because they compete at such a high level and in part because they get to go on so many cool trips. In the past several years, the band has traveled to Boston, Washington, Chicago and San Diego, playing at symphony halls almost as renowned as Carnegie Hall.
The HHS band last played on the New York City stage on April 10, 2004.
"We didn't have to apply. They invited us," she said. "They do their research."
As is usually the case, HHS is the smallest high school sending a band to the event, called the National Band and Orchestra Festival. Unlike the Festival of Gold series that HHS has performed in numerous times, the Carnegie Hall invitational is not technically a competition.
"When they say it's not a competition — the last time we went to Carnegie Hall it wasn't a competition either," she said. And yet HHS came home winners by virtue of receiving the highest score from judges.

Practice, pressure and performance

The student musicians are on a grueling march toward New York, with practice, pressure, dress rehearsals and community performances leading up to the day they step on stage. Shelton divides the musicians into two bands — the more advanced symphonic band and the concert band.
IMG 0045 2Rehearsals can be grueling, as Dawson Walker seems to show.The two bands plus the Jazz Band will play a benefit concert this Sunday at Thomas Auditorium at BRCC. Then the musicians will undergo the intense retreat weekend March 14-16, taught by a music professor from Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. The following week they compete in a regional competition at Brevard College.
They leave for New York City at 6 p.m. Friday, March 21, arriving at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan on Saturday morning. They will tour the Ground Zero Sept. 11 memorial, Times Square, Grand Central Station and other sights. At 8 o'clock Sunday morning, the seniors will walk from their hotel to Rockefeller Center to watch the live broadcast of the "Today" show. (Another HHS band tradition is that seniors always get a special treat during the annual spring trip.) The kids won't be inside the studio but will have a reserved spot outside.
"We'll have them make some signs," Shelton said with a laugh. "Our guidance counselor's roommate from college is a producer on the 'Today' show." The counselor, Dan Kealy, is "getting all that lined up for us."
After a rehearsal led by Carnegie Hall personnel at the hotel, the Hendersonville group will attend a matinee performance of the Disney musical "Newsies" at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway.
On Monday the young musicians will walk three blocks from their hotel to Carnegie Hall. Performance times are 1:45 for the combined bands and 2:20 for the Symphonic Band. After attending a high school choral music festival that night, the HHS kids will join the other musicians and singers for a two-hour cruise on the Hudson. The HHS Jazz Band will entertain on board the ship before the festival announces scores and presents awards.

How to bow
It would not be surprising if the trip to New York seemed like a distant dream for the band members as they practice the program over and over.
BandStandShelton strives for perfection in every note, and in everything that happens before and after the performance when her bands step on to these world-famous stages. Filing in, sitting down, standing up, bowing and filing out can take a half hour to rehearse.
"Is there any reason to talk?" she says when she hears a murmur from the back row. "Every time you talk it takes away from your being a professional. Even if you're talking about the music or the performance, it shows you haven't figured out what you're going to do yet."
The better the musician, the more demanding Shelton tends to be. On Saturday she wanted more volume from baritone saxophone player Drew Schweikert.
"Remember in California? Every day I'd tell you 'louder Drew, louder Drew,'" she says. "You probably thought your first name was Louder and your last name was Drew."
If history is a guide, the piece will get better. The kids will rise to the occasion. The setting will inspire them to a musical height they never knew was possible. It is, after all, Carnegie Hall.


HHS concert, symphonic and jazz bands

3 p.m. Sunday, March 2

Thomas Auditorium, BRCC

Tickets: $10 (available at HHS and at the door)

Combined concert and symphonic bands: “Ave Maria,” Franz Schubert; “Rikudim: Four Israeli Folk Dances for Band,” Jan Van Der Roost.

Symphonic Band: “Men of Ohio,” Henry Fillmore (arranged by Loras Schissel); “Aurora Awakes,” John Mackey.


HHS Jazz Band: variety of pop, movie score and swing band tunes.