By Amalia P. Spagnolo
All brushed or made-up to a shine, teenaged men and women were clad “casual-dressy” - the men in collared shirts with neckties, belted slacks and proper shoes; the women in formal suits or little black dresses paired with kicky footwear.
Guys tugged at starchy neckbands and gals pulled down stubborn hemlines in an effort, in futile attempts to feel comfortable. Spring Prom? No—these young people were styled and contest-ready for the 2013-2014 Minnesota State Music Sectionals, held this year at Greenway High School in Coleraine. Having prepared most of the school term for this very day, the event would be the true test of weeks of rehearsal and repetition.
Officially, it’s known as the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) State Music Contest, Section 7A/North. Established in 1929, the MSHSL has existed as a nonprofit, voluntary association of public high schools since its inception. In 1960, it was officially incorporated under the laws of the state of Minnesota as a nonprofit corporation. Music was added in 1965. Presently, there are 420 participating schools in Minnesota with 66,600-plus participants. Nationally, 21 state high school associations sponsor league music participation.
Nashwauk-Keewatin High School (NKHS) music instructor and band director Laura Goucher has taught music education for 17 years. She recalled, “When I was in high school, I was in choir, theater and band and competed in our region under the same rules there are today.” Goucher explained, “Just like basketball tournaments, music contests are considered like a sport. As long as the school has a sponsored band, any school in a section—ours is Section 7A, northern region—is invited to come and bring bands, choirs, and solos and ensembles with instruments and singing.”
Student-musicians are considered eligible for League participation in much the same way that student-athletes are.
Goucher continued; “In addition to the rules of the MSHSL, every school has their own. Each school is in charge of how a student is otherwise eligible. In our Nashwauk-Keewatin school, they have to be passing every class—they can’t have any Fs.”
Goucher went on to describe how Sectionals take place. “It’s two days of contest,” she said. “The first is solo/ensemble competition; the second is full band.” For the sake of judging standards, the League provides specific music lists. Directors and student-musicians are then able to choose the pieces they wish to perform. “This is a serious music contest,” Goucher noted. “Judges are certified music educators from high schools and colleges.” Not only do the judges evaluate performances, they take the time to give students constructive criticism for improvement.
“Music helps the whole child,” said Goucher. “It’s great that it’s helping them in all these other categories—like math, English and all these other things—but it’s also helping them develop as a person.”
Students improve as individuals and learn to work in a team as band or choir members, Goucher observed. “Some of these kids aren’t in sports, and so this is their thing where they get to be successful in more than just their homework,” she said. “Same idea with contests as in sports, this is their chance to get to compete in something that they love doing, to get out there in the community, to get feedback from the judges, and to learn from somebody else.”
Sander Grotjohn is Greenway High School’s (GHS) music instructor/band director of five bands and five choirs (grades 6-12). He was also the onsite coordinator for 2013-2014’s MSHSL Music Contest, Section 7A, North event. Grotjohn explained, “We’re here with Section 7A/North. There’s also Section 7A/South that happens in Duluth.”
The schools participating in Section 7A/North are Bigfork, Cherry, Chisholm, Deer River, Ely, Eveleth/Gilbert, Greenway, International Falls, Littlefork/Bigfalls, Mesabi East, Nashwauk/Keewatin, Northeast Range, Northwoods and Virginia.
Nodding at the well-dressed young musicians surrounding him, Grotjohn said, “It is wonderful to see all the schools interacting together and the music kids performing and working hard and having a good time. They’re enjoying the day.”
“Sectionals,” Grotjohn emphasized, “is not a competition against other bands or other choirs. It’s a contest—we’re competing against a standard.”
Students are scored on a scale up to 40 points in eight different categories. If they receive 35 points or more, they earn a “superior” rating.
“We have four instrumental judges and three vocal judges,” Grotjohn noted, adding, “They’re either music instructors or retired music instructors.”
Grotjohn cited the importance of students participating in music: “It helps them to understand how to be part of a team. It teaches them discipline because they need discipline to play their instrument and to get good on it.” Not only is it good for connecting both sides of their brains, he said, “It gives them a sense of a group to belong to in school, which is very important in many students.”
After 19 years in music education, Grotjohn has witnessed music “making students better citizens and improving their test scores.”
“Music is the only class that does that on a daily basis. Students understand that they are part of a group, part of something bigger than just themselves when they’re in band or choir.” Grotjohn said, “I enjoy being a band director. I’m lucky because I have the best kids in the school, and I really enjoy teaching them.”
Goucher summed up why she, Grotjohn and other music educators teach as they do: “I recently heard a band director at UMD say, ‘Music is for music’s sake.’ We teach music education because it’s just great for kids to learn music.”
The NKHS spring pops concert “Jazz and John Williams” takes place at 7:30 p.m., on Thursday, March 27. The public is invited, and admission is free. Concessions will be available.