SHELDON—The pandemic forced an unplanned intermission last band season, but this year, Sheldon Middle School instrumentalists are back in rhythm.
The program placed seven members — all eighth-graders — in the Northwest Iowa Bandmasters Association Middle School Honor Band earlier this year.
Two musicians also earned spots in the All-Iowa Honor Band, which is composed of the top eighth-grade musicians in the state.
Band director Jeana Larson said she is proud that her students pushed through, even as COVID-19 led to canceled performances — including the honor band concerts — and diminished program enrollment over the last year.
“It will probably take a year or two before things become more normal for everybody,” Larson said. “It’s disappointing when kids drop out for various reasons, but really, my job is to teach kids about life and being able to persevere through things. That’s just as important as the music part.”
The Northwest Iowa Bandmasters Association is part of the larger Iowa Bandmasters Association. After the Northwest association selects its middle school band, the statewide group forms the All-Iowa Honor Band from the top eighth-graders. To make that elite list, young musicians must pass a rigorous “recall” audition after being chosen by their district.
One of Sheldon’s All-Iowa honorees is Valerie Cook. As the only Orab eighth-grader playing the French horn, she said she likes the chance to push herself to stand out.
“I like music because I get to challenge myself and play with other people,” Cook said. “I like French horn specifically because it makes me think and it’s unique.”
Tuba player CJ Richards, the other All-Iowa honoree, said he also likes being involved in an ensemble.
“It’s fun because you’re able to express yourself with music,” Richards said.
While some instruments in the state band have multiple performers, Cook and Richards were the only chosen French horn and tuba players, respectively.
Larson talked about the pandemic-specific struggles the program has faced during the ongoing outbreak. With travel restrictions and performance cancellations, the band has had to get creative. One measure is bell covers, “masks for instruments,” which stretch over the large opening of brass pieces.
Trombone player Douglas Nilles, a two-time Northwest Iowa band selectee, said that sticking with the band gives him direction and goals to work toward.
“It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I’m able to make music and work in a group where we can all make a piece that is interesting and wonderful,” Nilles said.
One piece all three musicians highlighted is “Jungle Music” by Brian Balmages. The composition includes clapping and other unorthodox elements, a fun break from more traditional music the band plays. The program is preparing and practicing the piece.
Larson said that she is pleased with the program’s success and she is excited to see how her students improve after COVID-19 interrupted their learning. For the top performers, the next step is the all-state band for high school students. Freshmen are often intimidated at the high-level competition, the director said, but she encourages her students to continue working hard.
Looking to the future, the Larson said she is optimistic about her students and the program as a whole.
“One of the most important attributes our students show is perseverance,” she said. “The last year has all been about pushing your limits and finding new ways to do things. The students have done a tremendous job with being flexible and not letting COVID determine what they can and cannot do. I’d say their futures look bright.”