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Area’s Best Middle and High School Musicians Attend Indian River State College’s 45th Annual Honor Band and Orchestra Festival

John K. Southall, Professor, Performing and Visual Arts, 15 years Photographed on Wednesday, January 30, 2019, at the main campus in Fort Pierce.
Molly Bartels/Molly Bartels
Indian River State College
John K. Southall, Professor, Performing and Visual Arts, 15 years Photographed on Wednesday, January 30, 2019, at the main campus in Fort Pierce.

Fort Pierce - Friday January 26, 2024: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast; to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak,” wrote 15th Century playwright and poet William Congreve. Music has also been found to hold additional charms for middle and high school students—studying music helps them score better on exams in math, science and English, according to research published by the American Psychological Association

Nearly 500 middle and high school musicians converged on Indian River State College Jan. 16-20, meeting to play with others their age who share their passion for music and stretching their talents by challenging themselves to learn new styles, sharpen their chops, and experience a taste of what it’s like to be a professional working musician. 

The event was the 45th Annual IRSC Honor Band and Orchestra Festival, the largest school outreach and recruitment event for secondary music students in the state. The best student musicians from every middle and high school in a five-county area are nominated to participate. The annual festival was launched in 1979 by Tony Allo, IRSC’s first band master. Dr. John Southall, Coordinator of Music Education and Director of Bands at IRSC, has been running the festival since he began teaching at the College in 2005.

“It’s really not about what ensemble they’re placed in or what part they’re assigned,” Southall said. “It’s about the experience. This is a great opportunity for students to work in a semi-professional environment and to see the entire process of what it’s like working as a professional musician.”

Music directors began nominating their best music students for a slot in the festival last October. Southall reviewed the online nominations and made the final selections. Winners were notified in November which ensemble they would join, and which seat they would occupy. They were assigned six musical selections to rehearse over the holiday break. Then, at the festival, the students joined together with guest clinician conductors in four concert bands, two jazz bands, and one 76-piece orchestra. On the final day of the festival, each of the seven musical ensembles performed in concert for parents, other students, and guests. 

It is also a great opportunity for students and their families to see the College, Southall said. “It’s a very good opportunity for these students, their parents, their friends, to be on campus,” he said. “I believe, fundamentally, that’s what we should be doing in this education business. It helps increase enrollment and allows our community to see the great things that are going on on this campus.” 

During a one-hour break on Friday, Southall and Alex Canter, IRSC's Master Instructor of Performing and Visual Arts, gave the students a run-down of the programs offered at the College. Michael Hageloh, IRSC’s Executive Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, also shared stories of his days as a disco drummer. 

“IRSC is one of the finest institutions of this type in the state,” said Page Howell, Director of Bands at Vero Beach High School—which was among the first schools to participate in the festival. “The arts program here is top-notch. Dr. Southall does a great job of putting this festival together each year.” 

The festival is an opportunity for music students to mingle with kids from other schools and to perform with musicians who are better than them, Howell said. “They get to work with different conductors who have a different set of ideas. Most of all, they get to do what they love—play their instruments,” he said. 

The excitement inspires the students, and they bring that energy back to their schools’ band rooms, says Brian Hoce, Band Director at St. Lucie West Centennial High School. “When you get to give a group of kids an opportunity to do things a little differently for a few days, that excitement spreads and boosts the morale of the group,” he said. 

Hoce was a student in John Southall's very first honor band in 2005. “I remember as a 10th grader being impressed with his teaching abilities,” he said. “And now I have the opportunity to learn from him again. This whole thing has been very, very cool. My own children came here to IRSC, and I send students through here all the time. It’s a great program. And it’s great that we have this right here, where kids can come and get that level of instruction.”

Jason Albert, Director of Bands and Music Department Chair at Lincoln Park Academy in Fort Pierce, said, “It’s great for the camaraderie— students get to introduce each other to new ideas and to collaborate on musical styles and new instructional material. The students—especially the section leaders—are able to bring these new ideas back to our own band room and teach it to their peers back home.” 

Raul Pozniak is a senior at Lincoln Park Academy. He plays trumpet. This is his sixth time being nominated to attend the festival. “I’ve grown as a player and as a student, learning from some of the top instrumentalists in the world,” he said. “Dr. John Southall is an amazing guy. I’m playing harder and reaching farther every year. Being in a band and being a principal player teaches you leadership skills and how to connect with your peers. It teaches you teamwork, because in order to create that beautiful sound, the ensemble has to come together as a whole.” 

Following the festival, Pozniak performed with the Lincoln Park Academy band at the University of Miami. 

Schuyler Amacher, a senior at Vero Beach High School, says the festival helped him learn to be more confident when playing B-flat clarinet. He’s learning to play piano, too. “It’s better to be told to back off than to play louder. Just know your part and play,” Amacher said. 

Ryan Traill, a 10th grader and percussionist from South Fork High School in Stuart, said the festival brought him out of his shell, socially. “The first year, I was very introverted. But when it was over I was talking to everyone,” he said. “I learned a lot of new techniques with percussion that I was not aware of before. I got a whole new scope on the instrumentation. The professional atmosphere encourages improvement and makes it a lot easier to bring your work to a higher level.” 

Jeremiah Tackaberry, who is in the 8th Grade at Forest Grove Middle School in Fort Pierce, plays alto saxophone in the concert band. “I learned how to play swing style (at the festival), he said. “I learned to respect people better and to sight-read better.” 

Jonxi Chen is in 8th Grade at Lincoln Park Academy. He plays oboe for the concert band and tenor saxophone in the jazz band, but he can’t decide which he likes better. “Jazz band is a smaller group, while concert band is more of a grand sound,” Chen said. The festival gave him an opportunity to learn how to sight-read better and to learn some new songs, he said. 

Caden Martinez plays bass clarinet in the symphonic band at St. Anastasia Catholic Middle School in Fort Pierce. He’s been playing for three years, but this was his first year at the festival. “I liked it because I like getting to meet a lot of people who have the same passion for playing musical instruments as I do,” he said. Does he see music in his future after graduating high school? “Well, maybe as a part-time side job.” 

Ethan Cason is in 8th Grade at Allapattah Flats K-8 School in Port St. Lucie. He also plays bass clarinet in the symphonic band, but also wants to try playing trumpet in the marching band. Three things he learned at the festival include “don’t talk while the band leader is talking, don’t be mean, and treat others with respect,” he said. 

Southall brings in guest clinician conductors to give the younger musicians a taste of working with some of the best professional and educational musicians in the world. This year’s guests were Dr. Rick Fleming, Professor of Music and Director of Bands at State University of New York, Buffalo, who conducted the concert bands; Angie Dueñas, Orchestra Director at Vero Beach High School, who conducted the orchestra; and Christopher Dorsey, retired Director of Jazz Studies at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, conducted the jazz ensembles. Dorsey has played with jazz greats Nat Adderley, Melton Mustafa, Dionne Warwick, and others. The Dillard High jazz band has won the Jazz Band Competition at Lincoln Center, run by Wynton Marsalis, three times. 

For more information about this event or the instrumental music programs offered at Indian River State College, contact the Performing and Visual Arts Department at 772-462-7727.