NEW PALESTINE — With his hands gripped tightly around his drum sticks, Rowan Stewart swayed back and forth on the balls of his feet.

He was waiting in front of his drum set for his chance to play a drum snare solo before two judges. The performance, several months in the making, was a one-time chance to show off his musical skills.

Stewart, a Greenfield-Central Junior High eighth-grader, was one of hundreds of area middle and high school students who took part in the annual Indiana State School Music Association Solo & Ensemble contest last weekend.

“I’m a little nervous,” Steward said before he started. “But I’ve put in a lot of work, so I’m pretty excited about playing.”

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This year’s wind, percussion and string district solo and ensemble event was at Doe Creek Middle School in New Palestine. It was one of many sites around the state conducting the regional competition. The school was also the site of the vocal and piano ISSMA performances the previous week.

County students along with those from Beech Grove, Lawrence Township, Warren Township, Shelby Eastern and Northwestern Shelby County schools competed for a chance to move on to the state finals.

“It’s important for the students because they get a lot of critical comments from the judges, both positive and negative,” New Palestine High School music director Stephen Beebe said.

There were no individual winners; students simply competed against themselves, each receiving a gold, silver or bronze rating.

Performers go into the competition already ranked by group, with Group 1 representing the most skilled musicians. The Group 1 performers who received gold awards during the weekend will move on to the state contest later this month.

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

Stewart’s parents and his little brother watched him perform well under the pressure. He earned a gold rating in Group 4, the highest rating possible for the young musician.

“It takes a lot of nerves to perform in front of new people,” his mother, Bryn Stewart, said.

“He really performs well under pressure, so I wasn’t surprised,” his father, Ryan Stewart, added.

Alyssa Meyer, a senior at Mt. Vernon High School, was part of a wind instrument quintette. While she said her group practiced many hours for the performance, actually playing in front of the judges proved difficult.

“There is always pressure,” Meyer said. “You’re looking at the judges in the eye and wondering, ‘Am I going to mess up? Is everyone going to stay with me and do it right?'”

However, once the group started playing, that anxiety dissolved, Meyer said.

Ben Moan, a tenor saxophonist at New Palestine High School, said he was more excited than nervous to be part of the event.

“I’m pretty pumped,” the junior said.

While he understands why some musicians get nervous, he said it helps him to forget whats at stake and simply concentrate on the music.

“I don’t really think about my nerves,” Moan said. “I just go in and play, and it seems to work out.”

That’s the same approach Allison West from Eastern Hancock High School wanted to take; but as a freshman, she said it was hard waiting her turn.

“It’s kind of scary,” West said.

Sitting with her mother in the practice room, going over her music sheet, West tried to steady herself.  

“You get nervous; but once you’re here and are actually playing, it’s not as bad as you think it will be,” she said.

Greenfield-Central choir director Mary Evers was on hand, prepping students before then congratulating, and in some cases consoling, them afterward.

“Anyone who has worked on a piece, instead of seeing the whole picture, tends to see the minutia of it,” Evers said. “Sometimes they’ll make mistakes, and that is what people will dwell on.”

She encouraged Greenfield-Central freshman Jonathan Barber, who wasn’t pleased with his performance. Come to find out he couldn’t have done better; he ended up with a gold rating in Group 1.

Barber remains his worst critic.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Barber said. “I’m glad it is happening, but I need to improve some.”

Classmate Sydney Huber, a tenor saxophonist, has competed in the event for six years and felt calm and confident about going before the judges.

“I’ve gotten a gold rating before,” she said. “But I’ve never gotten a gold rating in Group 1, so this is a big challenge for me.”

Beebe said the competition is designed to do just that, help students take their music to the next level and improve, year after year.

“The event is a great opportunity for the students to learn and grow as musicians,” Beebe said. “I always tell students, ‘The judge doesn’t know what you sounded like three months ago,’ so it could be a big event for them because of the progress that they will make, and that’s what is important.”

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What is ISSMA?

The Indiana State School Music Association goal is to provide educationally evaluated music performance activities for students and teachers. It assists in the development of performance oriented assessment of state and national musical academic standards and offers educational support.

About Saturday’s event:

Wind/Perc./Strings Solo and Ensemble — District
 for Zones 2, 4, 6, 8 events were held at various sites around state. 

Event at Doe Creek was for all schools in Beech Grove, all Hancock County Schools, all schools in Lawrence Township, all schools in Warren Township, all Shelby Eastern Schools, all Northwestern Shelby County schools

Students were judged on variety of skills including: 

Intonation — individual selection.

Tone quality — control, clarity, focus and more.

Note accuracy — technique, fluency and or mechanical skill.    

Dynamics — appropriate range of dynamic contrast.

Balance and blend — chord balance, section and/or ensemble blend.     

Students earning a gold rating in Group 1 move onto state performances set for later this month:

Feb. 21, state solo and ensemble for vocal/piano at Perry Meridian Middle and High Schools.

Feb. 28, state solo and ensemble for wind/percussion/string at North Central High School and Northview Middle School.