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The Midwest Clinic Experience

by John Studzinski, Director, Willis Junior High Band

How does an ensemble get ready for a Midwest Clinic concert? John Studzinski, director of the Willis Junior High Jazz Band (Chandler, Arizona) wrote the following articles charting his ensemble’s preparations for The 2009 Midwest Clinic and their performance. Versions of these articles originally appeared in Arizona Music News, and appear here with permission from the author and editor.

The first article was written before the 2009 conference.

This past spring, I was informed that our jazz band had been selected to perform at The Midwest Clinic in Chicago, Illinois, in December. The Midwest Clinic is the largest instrumental music convention in the world and attracts over 15,000 musicians each year. This is also a historical year for the Clinic because it is moving to a new site, McCormick Place West, where the entire venue can be held under one roof.

Upon hearing of the selection I felt great excitement and nervousness. I know that the tasks ahead will be the most memorable and difficult of my career. Along with the excitement, I feel nervous about the entire project and hope that everything will work itself out as the year unravels. The hardest thing about this performance is that last year’s 8th grade class qualified this year’s 8th grade class. That is the story of junior high teaching. Every year, we are reinventing the wheel with different students and music. I am banking on the fact that since we have had a constant strong program over the past years, this year will be no different.

Why did I choose to apply to perform at Midwest this year? The Willis Jazz Band performed at the AMEA Clinic in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, I did not plan to do any big events but thought that I would go through the application process to keep pushing myself both musically and professionally. Submitting the application was a goal in itself. The application process was the most intense I have ever seen and I just took it one step at a time. I set timelines and goals. When I actually put the packet in the mail, I sighed with relief that the past year’s goal was complete.

The application process started a couple years ago, when I went to a workshop at The Midwest Clinic. The one main thing I kept hearing over and over again was that the CD submitted is the one and most important aspect of the process. So throughout this year, I had the jazz band recorded at three different times. I had them recorded at two festivals and in the band room by a professional. The recording had to be unedited and live. There must also be a DVD of the group performing the same music, to prove that we are who we say we are, and to get a general look at the group. I also had to submit the past couple years of programs and have references from prominent musicians both locally and nationally. I was fortunate enough to have Dean Sorenson, Allan Carter, Frank Duby, and David Duarte helps me out with this.

After being selected there are all kinds of other things to take in account. Will my district let me travel out of state? Where will we get the $25,000 to pay for the trip? Are my students going to be able to represent Arizona in a positive way? Will I sleep at night?! All is coming together as I write this in the summer of 2009. I am told not to worry about the money aspect and to only focus on the music by my supportive principal, Paul Bollard. The Chandler Unified School District approved the trip after a presentation from my superintendent, Camille Casteel. I am now working on the itinerary, final cost, and reservations. As for my students, I hope for the best experience and hope they will have great long term memories of this event. I just got back from a two-hour bass lesson with my upcoming bass player who is learning the instrument. I can only sleep at night, knowing I will do everything possible with my work ethic and energy as each day passes. And I also know when to participate in healthy distractions throughout this process.

After being selected, there was a mandatory meeting at McCormick Place West a couple weeks ago. My family made it a four-day trip to get the layout of the city. We did many activities that my students will do, such as visit the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, shop the Miraculous Mile, go up the Sears Tower and (of course) eat stuffed pizza at Gino’s.

During the meeting, we learned many of the rules of the actual performance at Midwest. One is that we can play no more than one publisher twice on the whole program. And that many of the works performed must have been written in the past 3 years and not already have been performed at Midwest. Of course, as soon it was announced that the Willis Band was selected, I received numerous packages of unpublished scores and CD’s for the upcoming year. It’s been an exciting process and I think my program is just about finalized. I have until September 15; after that nothing can change. It’s also customary to have a couple guest artists perform with the group. I am still working on that, however, it is confirmed that Dean Sorenson will be our featured guest soloist.

Throughout this process and a weeklong band camp, I have had nothing but support from my colleagues here in Arizona. I am constantly e-mailing friends, asking questions, and having musicians come in and clinic the group. I could not take on this project if it were not for the support of my fellow Arizona colleagues and friends. I can only hope the year unravels the way I envision it.

After his careful preparations, John Studzinski reflected on the performance in early 2010.

I cannot believe we performed over a month ago at The Midwest Clinic. So much time and great effort was dedicated over the past year to this 45-minute concert. I felt that as far as the performance itself went, the students peaked at the right time and I could not have asked any more from them in the way of attitude, perseverance, and flexibility up until the performance itself. I feared that the students and I would get tired of perfecting the same eight pieces through the past eight months, but they did not. Knowing there is never a perfect performance and finding the music continuing to change through interpretation kept the whole experience fresh and exciting.

I thought that when, someday, I might want to do this caliber of a performance, I would have a super talented group in which every section had incredibly strong players. Last year’s group won for this year’s band. That is the nature of junior high teaching, though. This year’s students were just like those every other year. I had a couple strong soloists and average-to-above-average students when it came to musical abilities. The one thing this group had was a goal to perform on an international stage, and that created a definite sense of drive and motivation. Did we have hurdles along the way? Indeed. Against my advice, my lead trumpet player got a mouthful of braces, and he could not play above a middle C for two months. My bass player told me he was moving out-of-state at the end of the first quarter, and sports conflicts with rehearsal schedules in the fall made me pull my hair out! Even one of my guest artists cancelled three days away from going into final print at the Midwest office. But to every problem there was a solution. I trained all my trumpets to play lead and share parts; found a bass player on campus who could play bass, but not read music; and worked out deals with the coaches. I added a guest soloist who graciously stepped in and did a fantastic job.

I think being organized and prepared was the key to this event. The hardest months were the first three months. During these months I had to map out the rest of the year and make mini-goals along the way. I think once we hit November everything started coming together and actually got easier. The Midwest staff had vigorous deadlines each month, so they make sure you are on top of things. They recommend that you perform your program about four times before coming to Midwest, and I think that helped our stamina and nerves. The work that becomes time consuming out of the classroom was the program (12 pages long with bios, pictures, history, endorsement letters, and much more), making a four-day trip for 40 people, along with many reservations and arrangements. Taking middle school aged students on a trip means keeping them busy from awakening until bedtime. We shopped the Magnificent Mile, ate all you could eat Gino’s stuffed pizza, visited the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, Sears Tower, went ice skating, had rehearsals, and spent a couple of days at the Clinic itself. My principal commented, “it is a convention on steroids.” I think the kids really appreciated the Clinic, most not realizing how big music can be outside their own classroom.

The Midwest Clinic was in its new building this year at McCormick Place West and the Willis Jazz Band was the first band to perform in the new jazz hall. The entire center was amazingly huge with all venues under one roof. All the vendors at Midwest were in one gigantic hall; I did not feel claustrophobic like in the halls beneath the Hilton. I felt nervous a couple hours before the concert when I saw hundreds upon hundreds of musicians enter the hall from the giant escalators. I thought of how many would be at the concert! The audience actually was not that large being a junior high event, but I was impressed that four out of the eight composers attended our concert, along with three or four other well-known composers who came along to listen.

The performance itself, I have only slight memories of. I was so engrossed in the music and the performance, and I am looking forward to the CD to relive the event. We had a sound crew, stage crew, recording crew, nationally-renowned musicians and educators helping out as needed along the way. I do not think the kids themselves were too nervous because of all the previous performances, not to say the same was true for me. Working with soloists Dean Sorenson and Michael Kocour was a true delight. Both are great musicians and easy to work with. Having David Duarte guest conduct was probably my best decision. David lived through this experience just three years ago and his advice and sense of humor through this past year was invaluable. I would also like to thank and blame Scot Lewis, a fellow band director at Andersen Junior High who talked me into this whole idea a year ago. It also meant a great deal to me that so many fellow musicians and educators stepped up and offered help and gave so much of their free time and energy. I am so glad I have had and continue to have the support that was needed for this performance and that I will have memories of for my lifetime.

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