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ON THE SCENE: Meanwhile … Meraki Winds visits Keene

Keene Central School band director Gene Baker conducts student musicians performing with members of the Meraki Winds, a quintet from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester earlier this month during an in-school education program sponsored by the Lake Placid Sinfonietta. (News photo — Naj Wikoff)

Ask writers what’s one of the best ways to improve their craft, and they will say to read books, books by authors of merit. Another is to write.

At Keene Central School this past week, music students had the opportunity to do a bit of both thanks to the Lake Placid Sinfonietta’s In-School Education Program.

For the past 18 years, the Sinfonietta has brought a mix of professional musicians and ensembles from the Crane School of Music in Potsdam and, more often, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester to host master classes and performances in Tri-Lakes schools.

From March 8 to 10, the Lake Placid Sinfonietta brought the Meraki Winds, a chamber quintet from Eastman, featuring Michael Huerta, flute; Alex Lynch, oboe; Phoebe Kuan, clarinet; Jonathan Churchett, bassoon; and Emma Shaw, French horn. They had a full day residency at the Lake Placid Central School followed by one at Keene Central.

Their schedule at Keene was intense, starting with an 8 a.m. meet-and-greet with faculty and students, master classes in clarinet, oboe, brass, reed instruments and low bass. A master class with the middle school and high school bands along with a conservatory session. They concluded the day with an hour-long performance at an all-school assembly. They even had time for a half-hour lunch, though it wasn’t all that relaxing as that’s when they provided an opportunity for me to chat with them.

Members of the Meraki Winds quintet are, from left, Michael Huerta, flute; Alex Lynch, oboe; Emma Shaw, French horn; Phoebe Kuan, clarinet; and Jonathan Churchett, bassoon (News photo — Naj Wikoff)

The five have been performing together for three years. At Eastman, the faculty goes through the entering class and forms ensembles as learning how to perform with other musicians is a requirement and aspect of their program. After a year, if some or all the students are not happy with their ensemble, they can request to be placed elsewhere. The members of Meraki Winds clicked, and three years later, they are still performing together.

One of Eastman’s priorities is to build audiences for live music, and another is to increase the musicianship of our youth.

As a consequence, they have a robust performance and teaching schedule for their students primarily in the greater Rochester area, but also farther afield through relationships with organizations like the Lake Placid Sinfonietta. They also mention that aside from performing in schools, they perform in homeless shelters, libraries, the University of Rochester Medical Center and other non-traditional venues as a means of bringing their music to diverse audiences.

The Tri-Lakes region may well be their program the farthest from their home base, an outcome of a relationship that goes back decades, as over the years many members of the Sinfonietta either taught at Eastman or are its graduates. As an example, Anne Harrow, who performs with the Sinfonietta, is the associate professor of flute and piccolo at Eastman, where she also performs with the Eastman Virtuosi.

Keene students wanted to know when they took up their instruments, how young were they, what caught their interest, and how many hours a day they practice. Churchett said he started playing the bassoon when he was in seventh grade, and he practices, independent of playing in classes and with the ensemble, at least four hours a day. The others chimed in, agreeing to an average of four hours a day over a weekend, and if they’re lucky, three hours during the week. Saying so, they gave the impression that they saw themselves as slackers, that they’d prefer squeezing in another hour or two.

Huerta, who hails from Austin, Texas, said that what drew him to music and wanting to perform was the opportunity to play with other musicians. He said that to him, there was something special about communicating with other people through methods other than talking. Huerta said he took up the flute because he was the only one in his seventh-grade class who could make a sound on the instrument; it almost came naturally to him, so he decided to stay with it.

Lynch, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, started taking piano lessons when she was 5 years old. She said she was inspired by her older sister, who played a musical instrument, adding that neither of their parents played. Lynch said in fourth grade, she tried the violin and gave that up for the clarinet in fifth grade. Then she heard the oboe, thought that was a very cool instrument, and began playing it as well. It was not until her sophomore year that she settled on the oboe, which she found more expressive.

Shaw, of Tampa, Florida, tried the trumpet at first but didn’t like it and was thinking of quitting the band, but her parents wouldn’t let her. Her mom urged her to try the French horn, which she herself played, and that worked. Shaw said her original desire was to become a physicist, but as she failed every single physics test, she decided to stick with music.

Churchett, also from Austin, Texas, said he started in middle school with the bassoon, then tried several instruments over the next two years, and ended back with the bassoon.

Kuan began in sixth grade wanting to play the flute, but there were no extra flutes available. Then she asked for a saxophone, but they were out of them, then tried for trumpet, another no go, and ended up with the clarinet, which she quickly came to love.

Nevin, a Keene Central student who attended the brass master class, said he liked meeting Shaw, her advice and her personality.

“I learned about her warmup routine and that she’s very good at playing the French horn,” Nevin said.

“Emma was very informative and helped out a lot of people,” said Nevin’s classmate Will.

Jackson, who has taken up the French horn, agreed, adding, “I wanted to play drums but found that I just didn’t like it, then Mr. Baker told me they needed someone to play the French horn in the band, so I tried it and liked it.”

The musicians all loved working with the students.

“Eastman can feel like you are in a laboratory or an incubator,” said Churchett. “It’s like being in a bubble, and it’s nice to get out of the bubble by going into the community and share our skills. Working with these kids reminds me of why I got into music in the first place because music has the power to connect people. So, it’s very rewarding to connect with the kids. It teaches me that it’s not about me and how long I’m practicing and all that stuff.”

“I like teaching kids because they have such open minds about everything,” said Shaw. “Everything they do with music is because they like it, there’s nothing outside of that driving them. I think there’s a lot to learn from that.”

Keene Central School music teacher Gene Baker said one of the most significant benefits of having Eastman students come to the school is that the music students will get to see other people who are similar in age who are extremely serious about music. I think the biggest thing is to hear their sound. The flute players have never heard a flute player like Huerta, a horn player like Shaw. Hearing them gets them motivated about music and hopefully will inspire them to practice.