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Cockrill Honors Band & Faubion Honors Orchestra Perform at Midwest

SWEET HOME CHICAGO: FAUBION ORCHESTRA AND COCKRILL BAND PERFORM AT MIDWEST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

McKinney, Texas – A little over a year ago, 7th grader Riley Whisenant was tooting out “Hot Cross Buns” on her flute in the 6th grade beginner band at Cockrill Middle School.

Wednesday morning, she’ll be playing decidedly more complex arrangements onstage in Chicago at the prestigious 70th Annual Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Conference as part of the 74-member Cockrill Middle School Honors Band.

McKinney, Texas – A little over a year ago, 7th grader Riley Whisenant was tooting out “Hot Cross Buns” on her flute in the 6th grade beginner band at Cockrill Middle School.

Wednesday morning, she’ll be playing decidedly more complex arrangements onstage in Chicago at the prestigious 70th Annual Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Conference as part of the 74-member Cockrill Middle School Honors Band.

At the same time that Riley was just beginning to figure out the flute, fellow McKinney ISD 7th graders Sarah Doshier and Brennan Barnes were learning to hold a violin properly a few miles down the road at Faubion Middle School.

close up of hands playing violins

Now, Sarah and Brennan are headed to Chicago as well to perform at the Midwest Clinic with the Faubion Middle School Honors Orchestra.

To play as a featured ensemble at Midwest is an honor coveted by bands and orchestras from all over the country and beyond, and thousands of visitors flock to Chicago every year for the conference.

That two groups of MISD musicians have been chosen to perform there in the same year serves as testimony to not only the talent of the players, but also to the culture and legacy that the musicians and their directors have fostered within their respective programs.

Riley and Sarah and Brennan are just three of the young Cockrill and Faubion players—numbering well over a hundred—who have all covered an incredible distance in just a couple of  years of playing.

And, there is no way that the sub-freezing climate of Chicago is going to slow them down now.

Faubion Middle School Orchestra — It’s Never Just About You

Kari Zamora gets into the music.

The director of the Honors Orchestra at Faubion very nearly dances as her hands flit about before her, and she leans into it as she guides the students that she and Assistant Director Christine Glass have cultivated into a world class middle school ensemble.

Zamora’s blonde hair bounces about as her head bobs and sways with the music, punctuating the rhythm; emphatic gestures from her baton drive the music forward.

Then, with a sweep of her hand, the music stops.

Orchestra playing
Faubion Middle School Honors Orchestra

There is much to be proud of in what Zamora hears, and she tells them so. There are also details that need work, that have to be ironed out in these last few days of rehearsal before they perform in Chicago.

“I need everybody to fully grasp how your planning and preparation affects everybody else,” she admonishes. “It’s never just about you,” she reminds them.

That’s a sentiment that they’ve taken to heart.

When they talk about orchestra, these students speak of family. Beyond mere talent, there is a culture of belonging and responsibility to one another, of being part of something bigger than themselves, that has made this orchestra outstanding.

“This is really…I feel like I say this every year — ‘Oh, this is the best group of kids I’ve had.’ But, this group of kids is really special,” explains Zamora. “Not just musically, but they’ve really built a sense of family, an orchestra family. They look out for each other.”

girl playing violin
Faubion Middle School Honors Orchestra violinists Sonal Patel (left) and Alan Chan (right) rehearse for the group’s Midwest Clinic performance.

When 8th grade violinist Sonal Patel picked up the instrument for the first time as a 6th grader, something clicked. “I was like, ‘This is definitely my thing. This is something that I’m actually good at.’ I could feel the bond with my instrument,” Sonal says. “I’ve always wanted to be somebody who’s good at something—and then I found my place in orchestra.”

Sonal was a member of the orchestra that performed last year on the audition recording that earned a place on the Midwest stage this year. When the new crop of 7th graders joined at the beginning of the school year, it was Sonal’s turn to mentor her younger peers.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, you need help with that. Let’s fix it,’ Sonal says. “And, then we’ll hang out after school and just do a lot of fun things together—actually building a friendship and a source of  bonding,” she says.

Brennan Barnes is one of this year’s new 7th grade members of the orchestra. “I feel like it helps a lot when the 8th graders come in and help us because then I feel better about what I’m playing, and I know that everybody else does, too,” she says. “That’s something that really helps the whole group.”

All of this works from the top down. Zamora and Glass have the orchestra room open each day an hour before school starts for students who want to come in and work on their playing. They stay late for the same reason. Sonal is there most days.

“They’re used to to going in the morning and practicing with their friends,” Zamora says. “And, so they build those relationships before first period has even started.” That comes out in the way they play and the way they play for each other.

Student with double bass
Faubion Honors Orchestra double bass player David Sparks listens as Director Kari Zamora leads the group through rehearsal.

When Sarah Doshier joined the Honors Orchestra this year as a 7th grader, she was at first intimidated by the 8th graders. “Middle school is really hard,” she says. “You’re going through a lot of ups and downs…You’re just trying to figure out where you belong. I was really nervous because I was like, ‘Ok, they’ve already established something here…But—especially with all of the 8th graders—all of them are so nice,” she says. “So, we’ve really become one big orchestra family. It’s kind of weird because when we have bad days, we all have bad days together. It’s not just like one person.”

With 10 pieces of music to prepare for the performance at Midwest, there has been plenty of opportunity for good days and bad days. They began working on the material during the summer, and have been at it nonstop for the past three or four months. It’s a daunting amount of work to accomplish in a relatively short timeframe.

“When we’re rehearsing and really picking something apart, you might only get to four or five pieces a day,” says Zamora. “At this point, we’re just trying to run through our program every single day and build confidence.”

David Sparks is an 8th grade double bass player who, like Sonal, was part of last year’s group. “Orchestra is like life,” he says. “It teaches you friendship and a lot of other stuff you can’t learn in a classroom. You learn a lot of life lessons.”

Zamora revisits one particular life lesson regularly with her students. “Just enjoy every note,” she tells them. “Because it’s going to go by so fast on stage. And no matter what happens on stage, if there’s something that’s out of tune or doesn’t go as well, let’s have fun making music.”

Cockrill Middle School Honors Band — Who Keeps Going?

Middle School kids aren’t supposed to be this good.

Right?

A middle school band shouldn’t be able to give you goosebumps, to put a lump in your throat. But, as the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band plays through the piece one more time, when that certain part of the song comes in…when the music swells, and they all come in together…it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

And, when the final note resolves, Band Director Gary Williams is silent for a moment. And, everybody in the band hall knows it was…pretty amazing.

Gary Williams directing Cockrill Band
Gary Williams directs the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band as they rehearse for their upcoming performance at the Midwest Clinic.

On the morning of Wed., Dec. 14, Williams and his students will play it again—‘In Resplendent Light’—along with eight other pieces on the stage at the Midwest Clinic. They are one of only four middle school bands chosen to play—all of them from Texas, this year.

“We’re in great company,” Williams says. “The other three middle school bands are fantastic, and Texas is going to knock it out of the park this year in terms of representation.”

The Cockrill Middle School Honors Band has earned their place among this elite group. Their list of accolades is lengthy and is highlighted by National Winner honors in the Mark of Excellence National Wind Band Honors in 2016, 2015, 2013 and 2011 as well as being named a 2015 TMEA State Finalist.

It’s part of the legacy that Williams and Assistant Band Directors Matt Harp and Robin Winter—and their students—have been building at Cockrill.

But, taking a group to Midwest is perhaps an even more special part of that legacy for Williams.

“I’m real happy for our kids. This is something that I’ve always dreamed of,” he says. “[I’ve thought to myself,] ‘I’d love to see my kids here at this exhibit. I’d love for my kids to see these composers.’

tuba player listening to instruction
Eighth-grade tuba player Kaylan Ahmed listens as Cockrill Honors Band Director Gary Williams offers feedback between songs during rehearsal.

“All of the composers have been texting me or emailing me asking, ‘When’s your rehearsal? We’re going to make an appearance.’ It’s a unique experience our kids are going to have, and I’m excited for them.”

Along with that unique experience comes a great deal of work. Williams had the 8th graders in for six or seven rehearsals over the summer and again right before the start of school.

“There were about nine pieces that we had to learn for Midwest, and to do that around Christmas time is crazy for a middle school because most winter concerts are about three pieces long,” Williams says.

Eighth-grade tuba player Kaylan Ahmed was part of last year’s band that sent in an audition recording of three songs with the hope of being chosen to perform at Midwest.

She is keenly aware of the legacy in place at Cockrill. “The band before I came into Honors Band kind of put us on the map,” she says. “They were supposed to be really good. I mean they played some insane pieces. And, knowing that we had to come in and follow that and do well and keep the legacy going—it was kind of scary.”

Perhaps the hardest part was waiting to find out if they had played well enough to earn a spot on the Midwest stage. “It was kind of like a moment of suspense, not knowing whether or not we had done our job and kept the legacy going at the end of the year,” Kaylan says.

Students make notes on music sheets
With a few days of rehearsal left before their Midwest Clinic performance, Cockrill Honors Band members make notes as they work to perfect their playing.

When the news finally came in, they learned that they had indeed done their part to contribute to the Cockrill legacy. “I mean, we’re going to Chicago,” Kaylan says.

So, last year’s band earned the honor, but this year’s band has to actually walk onstage and perform. And, as always, a new crop of 7th graders would be brought into the fold after last year’s 8th graders moved on to high school. The split is almost 50-50 this year—40 eighth graders and 34 seventh graders.

Riley Whisenant is one of those new 7th graders, and she learned quickly about the responsibility that comes with being a member of the Cockrill Honors Band.

“I could tell everybody cared about what they were doing,” Riley says, “and that if I was going to be in Honors Band, I had to put in the time to practice.”

Even as they are inspired by their experience as 7th graders, this year’s 8th graders have their eyes fixed on the work that lies ahead and their responsibility to add to the band’s legacy by building up the musicians who will come after them.

“I feel like at this point, the 7th graders are used to the 8th graders being kind of…honest,” Kaylan says. “It’s kind of like… Do you need me to help you on how to play that? How do you want me to help you? Most of the time, they’re open to it.”

Williams is pleased with the progress his students have made this year. “Were the expectations met? They have surpassed them in every way that I could imagine,” he says. “We tell them, ‘It’s not who’s the best? It’s who keeps going?’ That’s the important thing—just keep working, and if I see you improving, I’m never going to get upset with you.”

As far as Midwest is concerned? “I know they’re going to go in and knock it out of the park. Our whole thing is we wanted to create some moments. You don’t remember every detail about life, but you do remember moments. It’s just going to be a great trip. They’ll never forget this trip.”

For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Coordinator, at 469-302-4007 or smauldin@mckinneyisd.net.