Academy Band, Alpena middle schoolers partner for performance

  • Matthew Schlomer, director of the Interlochen Arts Academy Band, works with the Alpena Thunder Bay Jr. High band. (Photo credit: Christopher Hintz)

  • Schlomer works with the Alpena students. (Photo credit: Christopher Hintz)

  • Ray Reynolds works with students. (Photo credit: Christopher Hintz)

Single­-digit temperatures and blowing snow could not keep a bus full of Alpena middle school musicians from a chance to learn and perform at Interlochen Arts Academy. It was a trip that was years in the making for Ray Reynolds, band director at Alpena Thunder Bay Jr. High School.

Reynolds' history with Interlochen extends more than four decades, beginning with two years as a camper in the All­-State program in the 1970s. Three decades later his own kids attended Interlochen and his son enrolled at the Academy. He also serves on the faculty of Interlochen Arts Camp and it was there, during the warm days of summer, that he began to develop an idea for a collaboration with Matthew Schlomer, director of the Interlochen Arts Academy Band: The Alpena Thunder Bay Jr. High Band would open the Feb. 13 performance.

"As a teacher I am always trying to open my students’ eyes,” said Reynolds. “There is a limit to how much you can do that within the classroom setting. But when you provide them with a real-life experience, that is what really makes an impression and what they will carry with them forever."

That search for real­-life experience sometimes takes Reynolds and his students outside the borders of Alpena, a small city in the sparsely populated northeastern corner of the state. For years, he has taken a group of eighth graders to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When he reconnects with his former students, this trip is often the first thing they mention. "They'll come up and tell me how that was such a big moment in their life—when they went to Chicago." With this in mind, Reynolds began to talk with Schlomer about the possibility of creating another unforgettable experience.

A Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) performance is tough to compete with—but the Arts Academy Band has something the CSO the doesn’t have: musicians who are nearly the same age as Reynolds' students. "I love the idea of being at Interlochen because the kids are basically the same age—just one or two years difference in some cases," said Reynolds. "My students are seeing things they can't even imagine on their own instrument and the people showing it to them are not much older. They can see there is so much more that is possible. It lights a fire in them."

After a long morning drive across the state, the Alpena musicians filed into Corson Auditorium and warmed up on stage. Reynolds prepared them for the new venue and they began to rehearse while Schlomer observed. In audience, the musicians of the Academy band watched and listened. After the first piece, the Interlochen students erupted in enthusiastic applause while the students onstage beamed at each other.

"That was a great moment. It really meant a lot to them to hear that kind of support from the Academy students. Interlochen is a tight community," Reynolds said. "It instills a passion that goes beyond their classes and rehearsals and builds an appreciation for the work that other people are doing. I wanted my students to see that—and they did."

After Reynolds ran through the pieces, he invited Schlomer to work with the group. "With a different teacher up there, the students were a little out of their comfort zone—but in a good way. It was wonderful to have Dr. Schlomer working with them on many of the same things that I work with them on, but in a different way," said Reynolds.

Breathing. Communicating with your musical partners. Filling up the expansive venue of Corson auditorium. These were just a few of the ideas that Schlomer talked about with the Alpena musicians.

"Our goal was to create a greater musical awareness and capture their imagination,” Schlomer said. "We want to get them beyond focusing only on the nuts and bolts. These are important but you need to get to the magic too."

After nearly an hour working with Schlomer, the Alpena students took their places in the front rows of Corson while the Academy students warmed up backstage and then took their places.

As the Academy Band began to play, the Alpena students exchanged glances, watching wide-eyed as they heard more of the Interlochen ensemble.

"One of my biggest goals is to make my students' lives better. I know that developing an appreciation for the arts is one way to do that. And one part of that is having an understanding of what it takes to be really good at something," Reynolds said. "And they got a taste of that. They were amazed by the Academy band and got to see some of the discipline and focus that it takes to be good."

The evening performances concluded with standing ovations for both ensembles. "The academy students were very gracious and caring with my students. I think they were very happy to share this concert with us," said Reynolds. "I think the Academy students were rather impressed with the musicality of our junior high band. They could see that even a young band can play with great expression."

"It was fulfilling to watch the Interlochen students enjoy inspiring the Alpena students," said Schlomer. “This whole experience was totally in keeping with what we do at Interlochen. Our mission is helping people dream about what could be possible. And anytime we get someone to dream a little bigger, everyone benefits."

—Christopher Hintz