Nation’s oldest collegiate band racks up honors at Military School Band Festival

Andrew_O'Sullivan_bandFour members of the Norwich band never expected to be awarded one honor, let along multiple honors during their weekend at the Military School Band Festival in Alexandria, Va.

Celebrating its centennial year, the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States (AMCSUS) had huge attendance at the festival where “the cadets of the university did the work and presented Norwich in a great light to everyone else as a whole,” said Lt. Col. Todd Edwards , director of the Norwich University Regimental Band.

Over 200 cadets from various military high schools and colleges first competed against each other to determine what chair placement they would receive, then rehearsed alongside each other, and finally played together at the final concert.

This year was the fourth year that Norwich granted the opportunity to perform in the prestigious festival to four band members of varying levels of experience; Erik Avery, Brian Dolat, Kyle Morrison, and Emily Hart.

The weekend trip was an opportunity for the band to prove that the Norwich band still comes out on top after 194 years, which it did by winning multiple awards, and also offering a recruiting opportunity.

The festival took place over the weekend of Feb. 21-23 and hosted various military high schools and colleges. Just being picked as one of the members going to the festival is considered an accomplishment.

“It was an honor, only a couple people from the band go each year and they’re picked by Lt. Col. Edwards, who’s the band director,” said Christopher Legge, 21, a senior psychology major from Essex Junction, Vt. Legge, who plays trombone, attended last year’s festival in Valley Forge.

Edwards is the assistant commandant for the provisional battalion in addition to being the band director. He chooses very carefully whom he invites to play in the festival. The number of cadets chosen is based upon the cost of the travel and the amount of room available in the minivan once they arrive, according to Edwards.

“I take a look first at playing ability, I look secondly at class load that they have here because I don’t want to yank someone who’s taking 23-24 credits,” he said, “and then once I determine that, I look at ROTC schedules as well, then I will tie in who I think should go and I will ask them.”

The group traveled up to Burlington to fly out to Washington, D.C., where they drove to the Holiday Inn that they stayed at by the high school where they would be auditioning and rehearsing. Traveling down was only the beginning of their long weekend.

The team woke up early and made their way to the high school for early auditions. Once placed they immediately began rehearsals; the next day was another early morning, beginning rehearsals at 8 a.m. through dinner, then watching a drum major competition, along with a faculty jazz performance.

Sunday was the final day, performing the concert then traveling all the way back to school.

Auditions were held to determine chair placement in the band. “It’s divided up by what instrument you play, so for me it was the alto saxophone and there were 13 other saxophones auditioning for first chair all the way to 13,” said Kyle Morrison, 20, a junior business management major from Wakefield, Mass.

“So basically we line up outside a door in a high school, and it’s a blind audition, so the person judging us isn’t looking at us, he’s facing the other way. We don’t talk at all, we come in the room, he asks us to play about three scales, so you go up and down a certain way, and then chromatic scales. He picks three or four random songs out of the ten we got, just to see how prepared you are and once you’re done you leave and after everyone’s gone he places you.” Morrison was placed as third chair.

Preparing for the auditions begins with receiving the music a month ahead of time. Some of the songs given were Hymn to the Fallen, the Armed Forces Medley, and the Star Spangled Banner. It is entirely up to the cadet to rehearse and prepare for the audition and concert.

“I don’t rehearse them through that, there’s little time in the schedule for that. They prepare the music themselves, but if they have any questions on how to play certain things I’m here for consultation but a lot of the work is done by themselves,” Edwards explained.

Brian Dolat, 20, a junior mechanical engineering major from Newbury, Mass., was not concerned about the audition and ended up being placed as fourth chair.

“Before the audition I didn’t really care that much, I knew that there was an award for first chair, and I didn’t really want the award because I’m already all set in college and these guys are trying to get into a good school, if they had the award that’s good, if I get the award it means nothing to me, so I didn’t really care much for the audition,” he said.

Avery was placed as first chair for the percussion section and was recognized with the Silver-Medal Award given to all first chairs, along with the Best Concert Musician given by the guest conductor, who was Lt. Col. Edwards’ predecessor. The award is given to only one member of the entire band.

Not only did Avery himself win big, but Norwich as a whole won the Major Herbert L. Day Award, presented to the college that is best prepared for the festival based on the highest mean of the audition score of the chair-placement auditions. This is the second year in a row, and third time overall that Norwich has received this title.

“I was very happy, I was sitting right next to Col. Holden and President Schneider. I was very proud for the University because at this performance it was a little bit bigger because it was the 100th anniversary of AMCSUS, so every other military university president and/or high school was there as well,” Edwards said.

Norwich beat out the other three military colleges that go each year, the Coast Guard Academy, Valley Forge Military Academy, and Virginia Military Institute (VMI).

“I hope that they continue doing well at the military band festival. I hope the band expands on going to other colleges and tries to spread the word about Norwich. I think it would be good for the University to represent the band in different functions,” Legge said.

The environment at the festival is interesting, and provides an opportunity for the collegiate band members to speak with all the military high school students.

Norwich does not usually attend many military band functions such as this festival, according to Dolat. Most recruits who have had previous military experience, or have come from a military school, quit, causing the school to lose money.

Commenting on the students they met, Dolat said he “definitely felt like an outsider because most of the students there were from high school and not college.”

But Morrison had a different take. “You meet a lot of cool and interesting people,” Morrison said. “It’s also good for recruitment here at Norwich. We talk a lot to the high school students and a lot of them are interested in coming to Norwich and maybe becoming a part of the band. So it’s definitely worth it to travel and see a lot of people.”

“Because we’re the oldest collegiate band in the country we of course are using it as a calling card. During the breaks and stuff like that, our students are talking to some of the high school students about the potential of coming here to Norwich,” Edwards said. “It is a big draw for them to come here, and when we win awards, they can see that we’re not just talking, we’re the oldest collegiate band and we’re also winning the big awards.”

Edwards plans to take the chosen band members to next year’s festival, which will take place at St. John’s Academy in Wisconsin. There, the musicians hope to bring back more awards and praise for Norwich University and the oldest collegiate band in the nation.

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