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Pasco County high school jazz ensembles excel in state contests

It all ended on a high note for two Pasco County schools that made local history by earning superior ratings — the highest rating possible — at the state level of the Florida Bandmasters Association's Jazz Music Performance Assessments. The event took place March 25-26 at Freedom High School in Orlando.

The Zephyrhills High School Jazz Ensemble, led by Russell Schmidt, earned straight superiors from all four judges. Under the direction of Terry Adams, Hudson High's ensemble earned an overall superior rating, with one judge giving an excellent rating. The J.W. Mitchell High jazz band, led by director Josh Sall, earned an excellent rating.

That's quite a feat, according to Rebecca Musselman, supervisor of fine arts for the district. She pored through district records and checked in with the Florida Bandmasters Association to see whether this was indeed a "first" for Pasco County.

"Oh my gosh, yes, it's a really big deal," Musselman said. "We've seen superiors on the district level before, but a superior is really hard to get at states. It's quite an accomplishment.

"This cements the fact that music and the arts is a part of the core curriculum in our schools. The kids that are involved in these programs continue to thrive and it keeps them connected. It's a big deal, definitely."

The Florida Bandmasters Association, formed in 1939, has been evaluating school marching and concert bands since the mid 1940s, with jazz band evaluations commencing in the mid 1980s, Musselman said.

Assessments for ensemble as well as solo performances are part of the music program for many middle and high school band students who earn ratings of poor, fair, good, excellent and superior, starting on the district level.

Jazz ensembles from Hudson, J.W. Mitchell, Land O'Lakes, Sunlake and Zephyrhills High schools all qualified to go to the state competition after earning superior ratings in February at the District 5 assessments at Wesley Chapel High School. While some solo performers who qualified at district attended the event, Land O'Lakes and Sunlake High jazz bands did not perform for the state assessments.

"It was great — a wonderful feeling," said Hudson High band director Terry Adams, who led her students through three jazz selections: Come Out and Swing, Act Your Age and Just Before Sunset, which featured a solo from alto sax player Swanie Cantero.

"We've been to state several times before, but we've never gotten a superior," Adams said. "The kids were super excited. They really, really practiced for this."

Indeed.

Students, who often have to take night, summer or online classes just to fit jazz band into their school schedules, also ponied up for private lessons, Adams said. The band boosters pitched in, too, funding the services of woodwind specialist Jeff MacKechnie to better prepare students this time around.

The Zephyrhills jazz ensemble put in plenty of practice time, too, all while dealing with some unusual and rather loud distractions. The band has had to rehearse in the school's activity center, which also serves as the school gymnasium, while their classroom is under construction after being flooded by rainwater in May 2009.

"They're tearing out the ceiling and everything," said director Russell Schmidt. "So we've been rehearsing while kids are playing basketball and volleyball behind us."

"It was kind of an obstacle," said alto sax player Eric Gale, 17. "The concentration really goes downhill — you see five balls fly past Mr. Schmidt's head and then there's the noise level, too."

But when it came time to be evaluated, the Zephyrhills jazz ensemble drew on their past performances at district and state evaluations, Schmidt said, as well as their experience performing for functions and clubs in the local community.

"You just make it work. You deal with it and my kids did just great," said Schmidt, who has taken his jazz band to state five out of the last six years, this time with jazz selections Act Your Age, Tippin' on the Q.T. and a fairly new Latin piece called Running With the Bulls.

"We've gotten progressively better," he said, noting that strong middle school feeder programs have helped with that. "The kids were relaxed. I told them to just do what you always do and work hard. Work as a team."

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@sptimes.com.

.if you go

Jazz show tonight

• The Zephyrhills High Jazz Ensemble will perform at 6:30 p.m. tonight Florida Air Museum at the Sun n' Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland. Other upcoming performances include The Lakeside Jazz Festival on April 15 in Port Orange and The World Stage at Downtown Disney on April 22. For information, call Russell Schmidt at (813) 794-6233.

• The Hudson High Jazz Ensemble is available for local performances. For information, call Terry Adams at (727) 774-4323.

Pasco County high school jazz ensembles excel in state contests 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 9:37pm]

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