OLEAN — For Olean High School students, New York State School Music Association Major Organization Festivals are a chance to challenges themselves musically, as well as perform in a professional setting and get feedback on their performances.
It’s also one of their few opportunities to show off their talent to a wider audience.
“We’re showing to the world the high quality of our music program,” said Jan Rhody, chair of the OHS music department. “It shows the hard work that we do and it shows that the students are really willing to give their best and strive to get even better.”
The OHS select choir received a gold rating, while the band and orchestra both received silver ratings at their respective NYSSMA festivals over the last two weeks, giving the approximately 125 students, as well as program directors, who performed a chance to reflect on their work throughout the school year.
Rhody noted it was first time in years she can recall all three groups attending NYSSMA festivals in the same year.
Her select choir students performed May 2 at Williamsville East High School, once again earning a gold rating. She credits former OHS choir director Nancy Hefti for helping build a tradition of earning high ratings.
“I wanted to continue that tradition,” Rhody said. “I’ve been really proud of the kids that we’ve been able to maintain a gold or a gold with distinction.”
Select choir member Graham Kinnaird said he and his classmates were grateful to receive some constructive criticism at the festival, as the judges provided notes, as well as recorded their thoughts while listening to the performance.
“After concerts people compliment us, but there’s not a lot of criticism,” said Kinnaird, a junior, “and we actually get a grade and see how we’re performing.”
The choir once again used its trip to NYSSMA as an opportunity to stop by and perform at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Select choir member Lucas Wood said he and his classmates were grateful for a chance to sing for those “that needed some cheering up.”
Select choir member Taylor Hammond added it seemed like patients were connecting to the group’s music.
“One song we sang was ‘Freedom is coming.’ I felt that they were feeling that, that there was good outcome that was going to come, to give them hope,” she said.
The band, led by OHS band director Lisa Kranz, performed May 7 at Eden High School. Kranz said it had been students’ goal since last school year to attend this year’s NYSSMA festival.
“They played beautifully and we look forward to going again in future years,” she said.
The orchestra, led by OHS orchestra director Rintaro Wada, performed May 9 at Fredonia High School. Wada said he sometimes worries whether the preparation for the festival is too much pressure for his students.
“But when the school year starts some of them always ask, ‘Are we going to NYSSMA again?’ So I guess they want to go,” he said with a laugh.
He noted playing in the orchestra gives students more than just musical skills, it also teaches them patience, to pay attention to details and care about the quality of their work.
OHS is home to the only school orchestra program in Cattaraugus County, a fact Wada laments.
“I wish we had more string programs in our county because it’s a very challenging instrument for younger students to play and it takes many years and it teaches students constant effort,” he said.
Rhody noted very few local school districts consistently send groups to NYSSMA like the Olean City School District does.
“We’re really representing our county (when performing at NYSSMA),” she said.
She added she’s grateful the district continues support having a strong high school music program. The district’s 2019-20 budget proposal includes funding for additional elementary school art and music teachers, which will allow district elementary school students to once again receive art and music education year round.
“That will definitely have an impact that will carry on to the high school programs because kids will be more engaged with the artistic process at a really important time in their early life when the window is so open for learning,” Rhody said.
Rhody also noted that feedback wasn’t the only thing students received from the judges at the NYSSMA festival. Her select choir got a reminder about the importance of music from a judge who spoke face to face with them after their performance May 2.
“She said, ‘What do people do when tragedy happens?’” Rhody recalled. “She said … ‘They sing. Notre Dame burned, they sing. Don’t ever forget the power you have through your art.’”