NEW PALESTINE — Tori Dennis sat outside the performance classroom at the student desk in the hallway, raking her fingers through the ends of her long hair.

“I do that when I get nervous,” she said, forcing a smile.

She was dressed in an elegant black and white dress with bright turquoise pumps, ready to put on a show.

Dennis, 17, a New Palestine High School junior, was prepping herself to sing an Italian piece in front of the judges at the Indiana State School Music Association event Saturday.

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Middle and high school vocalists and piano players from across Central Indiana took part in the solo and ensemble showcase at Doe Creek Middle School. The school served as one of several sites around the state where young performers were challenged to test their skills in the regional competition.

The wind, percussion and string district solo and ensemble event will also be held at the school this weekend.

For Dennis, a soprano competing in her fifth ISSMA contest, the competition never gets any easier.

“I do get nervous,” she said, “particularly when you’re waiting to find out your score.”

County students joined those from Beech Grove, Franklin Township, Lawrence Township, Warren Township, Wayne Township, Decatur Township, Perry Township and Indianapolis Public schools for a chance to move on to the state finals.

Students competed for high rankings, with each competitor receiving a gold, silver or bronze rating.

Performers go into the competition already ranked in groups, with Group 1 representing the most skilled musicians. The Group 1 performers who received gold awards during the weekend move on to the state contest next month.

The students are judged on various skills, such as tone quality, rhythmic accuracy, note accuracy and dynamics.

Paul Grizzard, Greenfield-Central High School choral director, brought 37 students to the event. His students started prepping for the performances in November, selecting songs and delving into practice.

Saturday found him sitting by himself in the instructors’ room, surrounded by a pile of songbooks. He stepped aside to organize the books to show a hard copy of the selected songs to the judges, a must for participants in the event.

Grizzard enjoys watching students come into the school’s performing arts program as freshman and grow through events such as the ISSMA opportunity.

He brings his more experienced students to compete in Groups 1 and 2. Grizzard prefers that his older students challenge themselves, even if that means they earn a silver in Group 1, rather than a gold at a lower level.

“The kids end up rising to the high expectations,” he said.

Students from across the county agreed — the key to success is long hours spent in practice. And for many, it paid off. William James Gibson, a sophomore at Eastern Hancock High School, earned a gold award in Group 3 for his performance of a Schubert piece on the piano.

He practiced for the event for more than six months, he said. Gibson, who also plays the tuba in the school’s band, loved the opportunity to test his skills.

“It is nerve-wracking, but it’s exhilarating at the same time,” he said. “It feels good to show off.”

Steve Beebe, New Palestine High School choral director, helped coordinate the event. He loves the opportunity for students to get real performance experience and a professional critique. It gives them a chance to learn and improve.

“The judges don’t just give them a score — check a box; they also give them a lot of written comments, and that’s helpful,” Beebe said.

The event often reinforces what instructors try to get across to students in the classroom; it also gives younger students a chance to build their performance confidence, Beebe said.

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Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or