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Senn High School Band Succeeds In Earning Division 1 Rating

SennBand2In a moment, the band room at Nicholas Senn High School in Edgewater won’t be silent. In a few minutes, the students with instruments in their hands will play crisply, each first in his or her own element, before they then blend seamlessly into one complete whole.

But first they need to hear Brian Frazee, the school’s assistant director of band and orchestra and assistant coordinator of the Senn Arts Magnet Program, say that they need to take it slow. “Don’t push it,” he tells the students, calmly, in a room filled with chairs, music stands and at least one private practice area. “We’ve got to keep it steady. It’s naturally going to build momentum and drive and intensity.”

And then, it does. These students, over half of whom are on their first or second year of playing an entirely new instrument, have effectively used that exact same approach to become a band, to become an orchestra. This year, in fact, these same students parlayed that work ethic and continuous individual effort into an overall Superior or Division 1 rating, the second highest such rating overall, at the Chicago Public Schools High School Band & Orchestra Festival on April 25.

How did they do it?

Just ask Jauhara Sanders, 17. The junior spends a total of two hours and 20 minutes getting to and from her home in Bronzeville to Senn High School every school day. That’s part of the reason why her mother wanted her to learn the clarinet, and not the violin or the alto or tenor saxophone, when Sanders first decided to come to the music program at Senn. “The alto saxophone was already taken, and my mom thought that the tenor sax was too huge,” Sanders said.

So she chose to play the clarinet at Senn Arts, and she doesn’t have any regrets. First of all, she knows she can always learn a new instrument, that playing the clarinet will only help her be better prepared to learn something else. Second of all, she could have gone to a high school that’s closer to her home. “But I knew that Senn Arts could give me a lot of things that regular neighborhood schools couldn’t,” Sanders said. “I chose this school for a reason, because it’s worth what I’ve learned.”

Luis Garfias plays the trombone. He’s a 17-year-old junior who isn’t new to bands or trombones. But he’s happy to be a part of the relatively new Senn Arts band and orchestra, which just started last year, when he was a sophomore.

“The first thing I noticed about this band was that it was brand new,” the Rogers Park resident said. “I was interested and I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to meet new people. It started out really well. Everyone was really determined, and that’s what kept me going.”

Garfias had been in another band with other youth, so he wasn’t new to the experience of performing in front of other people. Yet he said he was still nervous, as were most, if not all, of the 26 students in the school’s band and orchestra program when they performed at Curie High School for the CPS festival.

“The band has a high capability, that’s for sure,” he added, specifically referring to the students who were new to their instruments. “That’s what also impressed me about them. People were able to catch up with their instruments so quickly.”

While Garfias, Sanders and the other 24 members of the band and orchestra are relatively new to Senn Arts High School, Senn has a rich band history that dates back to the early 20th century, said Jason Duran, the school’s lead music teacher and band/orchestra director.

“However, it was discontinued for a while, and we restarted it last year,” he added. Senn Arts program is in its fourth year, and the music program is in its third year. The band started last year. It’s looking to expand even more next year, too, Duran said.

“I would estimate over half the students are either on their first or second year of playing their instrument,” Frazee said. “Five of our freshmen just started playing a traditional band or orchestra instrument this year but came to us with prior knowledge of reading and playing music through piano or guitar. There was a slight learning curve, but I believe that their natural talent and ability, as well as their dedication, made that curve less steep. Most of them play their instruments like they have been playing them for years, not nine months.”

“The growth has been amazing,” Duran added. “I just attribute it all to the hard work of the students. We also have partnerships here with outside organizations like the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras and the 42nd Parallel Orchestra.”

What was it like to perform at the festival?

“It was fun seeing it through the eyes of the students who have never had this experience,” Frazee said. “I liked that we had a lot of discussions about traditions in music programs, and that this was a tradition that we wanted to establish within the band and orchestra program at Senn. Seeing the pride and joy on their faces when they found out they had received a Division 1 Superior rating was priceless.”

Duran said he and Frazee encourage the students to focus on performing at their highest levels, rather than dwelling too heavily on ratings. This is because focusing on good musicianship inherently addresses the rating system.

Frazee added that, for the students, being a part of an ensemble like band or orchestra really creates a sense of community and belonging for these students.

“These are exceptionally bright, creative students, and we are providing them with an opportunity to grow and develop their musical ability and foster a sense of pride in the school and the music program,” he said.

“One thing that I have learned watching these kids grow and develop as musicians is that, with support and just a few resources, high school kids can accomplish just about anything,” Duran added.

Additionally, Duran and Frazee will be teaching a four-week beginning band and string orchestra camp for rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in the community. The camp runs from July 6-31 and meets daily from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Frazee said this is a great opportunity for students to begin learning a band or orchestra instrument and to learn more about the music program at Senn. Students can register on the Senn website at www.sennhs.org

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