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Instrumental music program a new focus at area high school

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By Karen Paulson

INDIAN LAND - Indian Land High School band director Mathew Willis would like students and parents to think beyond marching band when they consider instrumental music.

"If the focus is always on marching band, the program will cease to exist after a few years," he says. He recognizes that there are many talented students out there who are simply not interested in marching band.

Nate Paulson is one of them. Paulson, a senior, started playing trombone in the fourth grade and, after several years of private lessons and playing concert and jazz band, he stopped because marching band was his only option.

"Marching band doesn't interest me. I use my music as a form of relaxation," he says. "Marching band seems more like work to me."

This year, when Willis offered a brass and percussion ensemble class, Paulson signed up right away. Willis says there were only seven students enrolled at first, and only one percussionist. After the first couple of weeks, two students moved, two more transferred out to get credit in other subject areas, and he found himself with only three students - Paulson on trombone, Michael Cummins on tuba and Mitchell Ayers on baritone. Willis plays trumpet with the ensemble and senior Luke Carnes steps in to play tuba when the group performs.

The group is gaining momentum as players for special events. After playing at the Veteran's Day Remembrance assembly, invitations have come in for them to perform in other venues. They played at the groundbreaking for the new Indian Land Library on Dec. 2 and also during the Sunday morning worship service at Belair United Methodist Church on Dec. 9. Willis has already ordered a collection of sacred music to meet some of the other requests he is starting to receive.

The ensemble is just one of the steps Willis is taking to round out the band program at ILHS. Concert band will be offered for the spring semester and he hopes to offer jazz band, the brass ensemble and other smaller groups to students as extra-curricular activities. The only limit he will have is time.

"I don't want the focus to be on marching band," Willis says. "I want the focus to be on the music. Small ensembles are the best way to teach music. The onus is placed on the individual in small ensembles." It's easy for a musician to just float along with the others in their section, he says. In small group settings, musicians have to pull the weight of their own part.

Carnes agrees with Willis. He has been the only tuba player in Indian Land's marching band.

"You have to be able to play independently," he says. "If I had the chance, I'd definitely take this [ensemble] class." He was not able to work the brass ensemble class into his schedule this year. But he likes being able to play with more brass, as opposed to being surrounded by woodwinds. Carnes plans to major in music education in college and hopes to attend Winthrop University.

Willis' philosophy is to offer as many opportunities as he can, with a focus on quality. This ensemble is a case in point: if he conceives an idea and gets a different mix of students than he planned, then he'll use what he has to produce a quality program.

"I didn't have any of this in high school," he says. He hopes more students will hear something they like and join in. The ensemble would like to go to a solo and ensemble festival in May. Willis will need to get another student to join on trumpet, since he can't play with them in festivals. But if he doesn't get someone, he'll take the instruments he gets and work the music around them. He just wants kids to get a chance to play.

"The doors (to the band room) are always open," he says.