One of the hardest things for a Texas high school musician to do is make an All-State musical ensemble. Each year thousands of students participate in the audition process, and only a handful are selected to be a part of an All-State group. These groups go through a clinic and perform at the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Convention in San Antonio, which occurred this weekend.
This year, three Paschal students made All-State musical ensembles. Senior William Woodard made the All-State Jazz Ensemble 1 playing second tenor saxophone, Junior Liam Heffley made the All-State Jazz Ensemble 2 playing fourth drum set, and Senior Ellie Bunn made the All-State Treble Choir as an Alto I.
These students began preparing months in advance of their auditions. In fact, all three of them began practicing as soon as the audition music was released at the end of the 2019 school year.
“I started practicing as soon as summer break started, right after I got the music,” said Liam, “If I didn’t have anything going on during the day, I would just wake up and go play drums. I did that not only because I wanted to make All-State, but because I loved to play.”
William started practicing in May the week he got the music, and the choir classes began sight reading the released pieces in class. Ellie also attended three camps over the summer to help her prepare for the audition: one at Bass Hall, one at TCU, and one at Paschal.
“The summer is really about them just digging into the rudimentary parts of the music and playing it as musically as possible,” said Jazz Band Director Matt Sawyer.
Students don’t get to just audition for state, they have to make it through the region and area auditions first. The Region Jazz audition was in mid September, only about a month after school started. Despite it being so early in the school year, 13 Paschal Jazz students made the region band, and seven moved on to area, which is where students audition for All-State. The state audition was only about a week and a half after the region audition, so the turn around was very quick. The state audition is different from the region audition, which is live in front of blind judges in the same room as everyone else of that instrument auditioning. In the state audition, however, each student goes into a recording studio and plays along with a recorded tape.
“The recording is kind of nerve wracking because you only get one take,” William said, “You just stand there and the guy is like ‘go’ and then you have to play. That’s the only scary part about it. Sometimes you can listen back to your recording but I didn’t have time.”
William initially didn’t think he did very well. “Mr. Sawyer wasn’t super excited, but that turned out just being him trying to be calm,” said William.
“I felt really prepared for the audition because I had practiced literally the whole summer,” Liam said, “During the audition I didn’t really feel nervous, more just excited to see my progress and all my hard work.”
Students are competing against the top two people from each region in this audition, so needless to say the stakes are high.
“After [the audition] it’s just a waiting game to see if you made the all-state band,” said Liam.
It certainly is a waiting game, because results were not announced until mid November, a little less than two months after the audition. The wait was worth it for William, Liam, and Mr. Sawyer.
“I was so happy to see the reward of my hard work,” Liam said, “and I was really excited because William had made one of the bands as well.”
“It reminded me that my process works, things are working, the students are taking initiative on their own, and they really have a passion for it and love what they do,” said Mr. Sawyer.
Choir’s audition process is similar but has a few differences. It is a four-step audition process and there is no recorded aspect, it is all live in front of judges.
Ellie worked with Paschal Choir Directors Nathan Benavides and Trevlyn Nipper, and her voice teacher during the school year to prepare for the auditions.
“She would do a lot in terms of learning the notes and rhythms, and then we would work with her on vocal technique and things like musicality and interpretation of the music to help her stand out from the crowd,” Ms. Nipper said, “Most of the kids that go through the process know the notes and rhythms, it’s really about ‘how can I stand out as an individual’.”
Ellie moved to Paschal last year and this was her first time taking part in the All-State audition process.
“At my last school if you weren’t in the varsity choir they didn’t even tell you about All-State. They didn’t give you the opportunity to do it so I never really had a chance.”
She came to Paschal about three weeks after school started in 2018 which was already too late to begin preparing, so this year was her one chance.
The choir directors held mock auditions in class, which Ellie found helpful, and they had a “cuts party” to practice the round one audition cuts a few days before the audition.
In the audition, students are called into the room in groups of five and have to listen to the students ahead of them.
“One thing they always tell you is if you hear somebody doing something different than you before you go, do not change what you’re doing,” Ellie said.
In the third round of auditions, sight reading is introduced. Sight reading is reading and performing a piece of music you have never seen before. It is something Ellie had never practiced in an audition setting.
“As soon as you walk in they play this track and you’re just supposed to go,” she said, “I didn’t know that and I just really messed it up.”
Sight reading is only a small portion of the overall score, so Ellie ended up moving on to the fourth round. Round 4 is the area audition, which took the most time. After the actual audition, students had to stay and wait for results. Hours later results were announced out loud to the room, from alternate to first chair for each part.
“I was like ‘there’s no way I’m going to make it, there’s no way that’s happening’, and then my director pulled his phone out and I was like ‘oh, I made it’ because last year he took a reaction photo of the kid who made it, so I knew.”
Making an All-State group is not only an accomplishment for students, but for the fine arts department and Paschal High School as a whole.
“It helps us maintain recognition in the region and throughout the state,” Ms. Nipper said, “It sets apart our school as being a unique musical education.”
“It definitely adds a lot of character to the program,” Mr. Sawyer said, “it shows that it’s a strong program and is consistent.”