SOUTH BRUNSWICK – The wind ensemble at Crossroads Middle School South has achieved an unmatched feat: it is the first group of middle school students from New Jersey to be accepted to the Music for All National Festival.
Around 60 students will travel to Indianapolis for the March 14-16 festival, which is an opportunity not only for the students to perform on a national stage, but to hear the music of the top 24 high schools and top eight middle schools in the country; to learn during master classes; and to attend private rehearsal sessions.
“We are really, really excited,” band director Sergio Fossa said.
In 2017, the wind ensemble performed at a music festival in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Fossa said one of the judges encouraged him to apply for Music for All.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I think of doing it … because it’s like the World Series of music,” he said.
However, he said he felt it was wrong to decline, so after speaking with Todd Nichols, a Rutgers University professor, and then being encouraged after a 2018 performance at a high school music festival at John P. Stevens High School in Edison, he said he had to take the potential of his students to the national stage.
Nichols, who is currently the associate director of University Bands and director of Athletic Bands at Rutgers, offered a clinic for the students, and then the group was given one week last May to prepare for a recording session, Fossa said.
“It was massive hours and hours of rehearsals,” he said. “There were two nights that forever have changed my career.”
Last July, Fossa found out Crossroads was selected to the festival, which he likened to the gold medal run of the U.S. men’s ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, as depicted in the movie “Miracle.”
Fossa explained that whereas in sports, a team progresses through the year, makes it to the playoffs and gets a championship at the end, music is comprised of students preparing all year, becoming performance-ready, submitting a recording and then perhaps graduating before that recording is approved. In this case, the 68-student wind ensemble – which has one to three players on a part, requiring a lot of individual playing – has only 19 returning musicians from the 2017-18 school year. There were 61 total members in last year’s wind ensemble.
“I’m stunned at what they can do,” Fossa said of his new group rising to the occasion and sounding like adults. “It becomes art.”
In Indiana, the wind ensemble will offer five selections. “Vesuvius” is a programatic work about the destruction of Pompeii, a 10-minute long “beast” of a composition, according to Fossa. “Pride and Joy” was written by Fossa’s brother Salvio, an unpublished piece the students will be debuting. “Incantation and Dance” is more than seven minutes long. There will also be versions of “Flourish for Wind Band” and “El Capitan.”
“This is the first middle school, representing New Jersey, playing respectable literature that will get the attention of the ‘greats,'” Fossa said.
Sanchali Dighe, an eighth grader who plays the contrabass for Crossroads, as well as the bass clarinet and clarinet, was the first chair for the Central Jersey Music Educators Association Region 2 band.
“I’m excited and nervous at the same time since I’m the only one who plays my instrument [in the wind ensemble] but I’m up for the challenge,” she said. “It feels good to be recognized but it’s also a lot of pressure on you to play everything right because if you play one wrong note you have to keep going.”
Fellow eighth grader, and fellow returning band member, Akshay Iyer, has been playing percussion for eight years. He also plays the mridangam, a percussion instrument of ancient Indian origin.
“I feel music itself, there is so much to it, it’s like infinity and beyond,” he said. “You can’t ever be the best, you just have to keep working on and on. … There’s so much to it. You can’t stop.”
Also a member of the CJMEA Region 2 band, Akshay said he doesn’t mind practicing during school hours and again once he is at home at night.
“I’m looking to learn from the opportunity,” he said. “There will be middle schools from all over the country. It’s fun to listen and hear them and hear how to improve ourselves.”
To recognize the current ninth grade students who contributed to the recording process last year, Crossroads held a benefit concert on Feb. 15. The high schoolers who cannot attend Music for All were presented with a plaque engraved with their names.
“It was really neat. It was a great event, well received, and was a good dress rehearsal [for Indianapolis],” Fossa said.
Looking forward, band director Donald Strusz said Music for All “validates what the kids have worked on” since the elementary school level.
“It shows the kids, if you work, this is where you can go,” he said. “It gives everyone in the area an idea, if we work hard, look what we can do.”
Strusz and Fossa also said that Crossroads is giving New Jersey a name in music, since usually the Midwestern states and Georgia are lauded for their talents.
“They work that hard and are each that talented,” Fossa said. “It’s incredibly uplifting and gratifying to me because I’ve seen the unmatched potential of a 12- or 13-year-old.”
Students from South Brunswick High School have attended twice in past years, and New Jersey will be represented by Westfield High School this year.
For more information on the festival, visit www.musicforall.org.
Contact Jennifer Amato at email@example.com.