SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake High School music program is having a banner year.
In recent weeks, students in the school's band and choral programs have earned recognition at home, across the North Country and throughout the state. One choral student, soprano Jessica Kemp, recently became only the third Saranac Lake student ever to be selected to the National Association for Music Education's All-Eastern festival, to be held this spring in Connecticut.
The teachers who run the program credit their students for working hard to achieve this level of success and recognition. They also want the community to know how successful the music program is, given the difficult fiscal climate the Saranac Lake Central School District is mired in.
Village of Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau, right, reads a proclamation Monday night commending Jessica Kemp, center, for receiving All-Eastern honors from the National Association for Music Education. Kemp’s teacher, high school Choral Director Drew Benware, applauds.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"My new message is, we can in no way assume this quality of music education just happens," said Drew Benware, the high school's choral director. "It is hard work on a daily basis with a fully staffed department. If the public expects, and I think they do, the same level of programming and the same level of community involvement, we can't keep what we're doing a secret."
Fifty-three students from the music program's choral, jazz band and concert band were accepted this year to the New York School Music Association's Zone 6 area all-state festival, which took place in mid-November at Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School. Zone 6 basically includes high schools in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties. The students were picked for the area all-state festival based on performances in front of a neutral adjudication panel and the difficulty of the music they selected to perform.
"We had a really good showing and strong representation at area all-state, which is good," Benware said. "Our students worked extremely hard. It's gratifying for me and for them to work a long time on something and get a great result."
Kemp, a senior, was selected to participate in the mixed chorus at the annual conference all-state music festival, which features students from across New York. It took place from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music.
Benware said Kemp got into that competition through her solo performance of a difficult piece by Handel titled "Oh, Had I Jubal's Lyre."
"She did a Level 6, which is the highest level of difficulty, and got a perfect score," Benware said. "Even that does not guarantee you a spot in all-state, especially for a soprano. For example, we had a flute player, Julia Murray, who got a 100 on a Level 6 and she was wait-listed. She was an alternate."
Kemp then used the same solo to apply for All-Eastern honors through the National Association for Music Education, pitting her against students from Washington, D.C. to Maine. She got in.
"She's in the women's chorus," Benware said. "She'll learn the music ahead of time and then travel to Hartford, Connecticut, for a four-day rehearsal at the end of spring break, leading up to a performance."
Benware said Kemp is incredibly driven.
"She works to get it right," he said. "I know in particular she took outside lessons because she wanted to nail that solo. She has passion for the music. She sets her goals high and she meets them."
In addition to recognition from beyond Saranac Lake, students in the high school music program got some attention at home earlier this week. Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau and the Saranac Lake village board issued proclamations and commendations to Benware, high school instrumental music teacher Keith Kogut and their students at Monday night's board meeting. A group of choral students performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the high school alma mater for village officials and an audience in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium.
"This community is so acceptive and supportive of the arts, whether we're talking about band, instrumental music, drama or the visual arts," Kogut said in accepting a plaque from Rabideau. "It means so much to myself, my colleagues and our students to be part of a community that supports our efforts musically and artistically."
Benware and Kogut are working to cultivate even more support from the community, something Benware said will be essential as the school district braces for another round of cuts in next year's budget. Benware noted that Superintendent Gerald Goldman recently compared the district's budget situation to the sinking of the Titanic.
"Mr. Goldman has said now is the time to start making your voice heard," Benware said. "If you value what we do here, sing it out loud and proud now, not when positions have been cut and you're wondering why it isn't the same program it used to be. It can't be if we trim. We've got to start talking. We've got to say, as community, what we value."
The school's music program has been getting into the community quite a bit lately. On Friday, choral students sang and the village's annual Christmas tree lighting in Berkeley Green. The following night, the vocal ensembles performed to a packed house at Saranac Village at Will Rogers. On Sunday, students were also involved in the annual Messiah Community Sing. This week, students performed at a Rotary Club luncheon and planned to carol at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. On Dec. 31, they'll perform at First Night Saranac Lake.
"This group is in demand," Benware said. "It's a balance between how much can I preserve the kids time and their own personal schedules. In order to have the support of the community, we've got to be in the community, and that's a tight rope."
The music program's biggest upcoming event is Tuesday's annual winter concert at the high school. Benware said it will showcase all the performing groups in a variety of different styles. Admission is free.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.