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Richmond school bands compete nationally - virtually

Palmer and McRoberts students were part of MusicFest Canada this week.

Palmer secondary student and flautist Nina Wang was honoured with gold medal at MusicFest Canada this week.

She was joined at the virtual festival by fellow band students with the RC Palmer Concert Band, as well as McRoberts secondary students.

Normally, band students would travel to the prestigious competition in Toronto, but like everything else this year, their participation has been virtual, cutting out the quintessential school trip experience.

But their teachers have profuse praise for the students’ resilience in the face of COVID-19-related restrictions and cancelled travel plans.

Palmer band teacher Iris Chan set up phones in different corners of the band room and filmed the Palmer concert band for the competition.

Phones are user friendly, Chan said, and the quality is “not bad.”

Microphones were set up in the instrument sections so there would be less feedback from the room, but no mixing was allowed.

“We had to be creative and fix it with the resources we have,” Chan said.

Chan was impressed by how her students performed given the COVID-19 limitations placed on them.

“The professionalism it brought together, the teamwork, the coordination — they took it really seriously,” Chan said, adding this is an extracurricular activity for the students so they can only rehearse at lunchtime.

Chan chalked up the high school’s success in music to a strong elementary program whereby most Grade 6 and 7 students in Richmond take band.

This prepares them for high school programs because they have learned to work as a team, they’ve learned the physical demands of fingering and to focus on the conductor.

“You have to express together, you have to watch and breathe together to express the same sound, the same phrasing – it’s training of the mind,” Chan said.

Music also trains the mind to think deeper, she added, and this is why she thinks music classes are more than just an elective.

“It’s training for more than just fun or making sounds or making music, it’s the development of the overall human being,” she said.

Meanwhile, two McRoberts band students, trumpeter Zephyr Clarke and drummer Thomas Vigneras, will play at MusicFest Canada as part of the Conn Selmer Centrestage Jazz Band, one of the most elite events, explained that school’s band teacher Jamie Carter.

Both Clarke and Vigneras have also been accepted to the McGill jazz program – the most prestigious jazz program in Canada and one that is considered on par with many top American music programs, Carter explained.

“The kids are being really, really resilient — auditioning during a pandemic,” he said.

Clarke and Vigneras will be joining a “crew” of Richmond School District grads studying at the McGill jazz program.

“We’re getting quite a foothold in the school there,” Carter said.

In the past few years, students from McRoberts have gone on to Berkeley, Juilliard and other well-known music schools.

Carter also credits the success of his students to the school district for keeping a strong elementary band program and supporting music.

Historically, SD38 has supported band programs, Carter said, with mandatory band in Grades 6 and 7.

“The danger is when the going gets tough, the first thing to go is band,” Carter added.

Sometimes it’s viewed as “frivolous” and not part of the academic program.

Carter pointed to a recent study done at UBC that shows the connection between academic success and music programs.

“If you read the research, it’s black and white,” Carter said.

He was not happy to hear the McNair music program would have fewer music classes next year – it lost the only strings program in the school district.

And for some students, band and other music programs fill a gap that sports often fills for other students.

About one-fifth of McRoberts students are involved in band, Carter said, and it provides a social connection for them as well as teaching them “soft skills.”