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Updated: Friday, 18 Jan 2013, 8:03 AM CST
Published : Thursday, 17 Jan 2013, 6:20 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - South Austin’s Bailey Middle School Wind Ensemble is bound for the nation’s Capital for the second presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. The group of seventh and eighth graders is used to that sort of thing.
Since Bailey first opened in 1993, the ensemble has won 19 straight "Sweepstakes" awards and in the last six years alone, has traveled the country picking up prestigious awards right and left.
In 2007, it was in Indianapolis. 2008 saw a trip to St. Louis. A year later, the band traveled to Atlanta and in 2010 it was Colorado.
Two years ago, the band was back in Indianapolis and in 2012 it was another journey to the capital of Georgia.
“Last year in Atlanta,” recalled band director Bill Haehnel, “there were bands from Oklahoma, Indianapolis, New York City, all the way down to Florida and everybody in between. We were up against 19 high schools and we were the grand award winners.”
That paved the way for Washington.
“When we travel across the country,” the director said, “other groups hear us; contest evaluators hear us and they say, 'Have you heard about this group from Bailey Middle School? You know those kids really got it going on.'
“So the word gets out and that's how we got this invitation to the Presidential Inaugural Festival in Washington, D.C.”
Band members were stunned and thrilled.
“We're going to go to the inauguration of the president,” said Joshua Owens, 14, an oboe player. “That's an enormous deal.”
"No one else,” agreed clarinetist Emily Calderon, 14, “gets to say that they were the only school in Texas, even out of high schools and everything, to be invited to Washington, D.C. So that's pretty awesome.”
The band will play at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration Festival Saturday and then stick around for the swearing-in ceremony Monday.
“We'll be down there for Martin Luther King Day, too,” Haehnel said. “So the kids will get to be on site where Dr. King had his famous speech.”
There will be some entertainment, too, but this journey is hardly a pleasure trip.
“It's education,” said the band director, “every aspect of education. It's the core subjects along with the fine arts and that's what we try to incorporate.”
So how does a bunch of young teenagers manage, year after year, to so completely dominate the competition? Haehnel wants to be modest about it.
“I don't know if we do anything differently,” he said. “It's not about us; it's about the kids. And the kids are buying into what we're telling them. They are believing in themselves. It's all about the belief system and letting them realize what they can do.”
That cannot be the whole explanation, though. After all, lots of other band leaders also encourage their students. At Bailey, though, the staff is utterly relentless.
“We play music that's more advanced than what we should be playing,” Haehnel said, “and it makes it more interesting for them, more of a challenge, and they're meeting the challenge. A lot of kids just kind of get by with what they need to get by with. I guess that's human nature, you know; I'm not blaming children."
“But, you know, we're all lazy. It's just: Can we control the laziness and when it's time to work, can we make that happen?
“What's working for us is we have certain standards."
“'Okay, Sam, you can do better than that,” Haehnel said, addressing an imaginary student. “Try it like this. No, not yet; no, not yet.' And then by the time they realize, 'Oh!'
“And when they get that discovery, that 'Ah-ha' moment, I say, 'Okay, there's your minimum.'”
“So we've been able to inspire them, to let them see how good they can really be. They don't start out understanding how good they can be, but we've done this a long time."
“We bring it out of them and once they realize, 'Hey, that sounds pretty good; we sound pretty good,' you know, they get turned on about it and they start advancing more and more and more and pretty soon we've got a pretty good musical product we're able to put out there.”
As for the actual technique, it’s not complicated: Raise the bar, push hard, apply stern pressure when the effort lags and lavish praise when the kids perform.
The experience for the musicians, however, is not for the faint of heart.
“Sometimes little things make me upset,” acknowledged Avery Smith, 13, a bassoon player. “It's a lot to manage, but everybody is really dedicated. So everyone wants to be good; most everyone wants to be good and wants to please him and make him happy. He's not too rough on us and he's really nice.
“He teaches with high expectations,” added French horn player Mandi Funderburgh, 13, “and he doesn’t let anything slide by.”
“He just wants us to be exceptional,” agreed Emily Calderon, “because he's always told us that it's okay to want to be exceptional. Especially this generation, a lot of people aren't really striving for excellence. And that's exactly what we're trying to achieve.”
That’s about as far as the kids go with it, but
their director is looking well on down the road.
“I'm trying to let these kids know how special they can be,” Haehnel said. “And it's not just about music. They will take it on to college, hopefully, with them.
“They'll take it to their jobs when the graduate, become a bank president or the president of the United States, where they need to be able to accept and embrace excellence.”
First things first, though. There’s a trip to take, a performance to nail and the experience of a lifetime to soak up.
“If we act like the wind ensemble that we are,” predicted Joshua Owens, “we can do enormous things. We can make ourselves proud and make Austin proud, in this case, and it's just a great feeling.”
But if the students don’t quite grasp what all this means to their future, at least one of them understands well her place in the grand scheme.
“We are part of the span that has achieved many great things,” said piccolo and flute player Alexa Ibarra, 14, “and I am really happy to be a part of that and add onto that legacy.”
Back in the rehearsal hall, Haehnel lifts his baton and the musicians lift their instruments.
“Don't do it until you get it right,” the director shouts. “Do it until---"
Loudly and in unison, the band finishes his thought: “You can't get it wrong!"
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