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A harmonious affair: UCPS set to impress at North Carolina Music Educators Association Convention

In a symphony of talent and dedication, Cuthbertson Middle School has hit a high note by securing a coveted spot at the prestigious North Carolina Music Educators Association (NCMEA) Convention, set to take place on Nov. 4-7 in Winston-Salem. This annual gathering of the state's music educators is a harmonious affair, and this year, Cuthbertson Middle School promises to be the crescendo, performing in front of musical professionals from across the state.

Cuthbertson Middle earned a well-deserved spot for its musical excellence. The competition was fierce. The North Carolina Bandmasters Association assesses audio auditions and recommendation letters submitted by schools throughout the region. Judges evaluate submissions without prior knowledge of the schools' identities, ensuring fairness and impartiality.

As Katie Ebert, the band director at Cuthbertson Middle, gushes with pride, "The NCMEA's nod to our program acknowledges the outstanding band we've cultivated."

Under the theme of "Music Makes Me Feel...," Cuthbertson's advanced eighth-grade band, along with some advanced seventh-graders, will entertain the audience with selections of about eight challenging and diverse musical pieces. Sixty-five students will take the stage.

Ebert's students are focused, confident and ecstatic about showcasing their talents. Among them are eighth-graders Sahasra Rallabandi and Benjamin Neustadter. Sahasra loves playing woodwind instruments like the flute and piccolo. She said music was important because it brings people together, makes you responsible and lets you express yourself and connect with others.

"Being in the band will be helpful to my future. I don't know if it's what I want to do when I grow up, but it will benefit me. The main thing it helps with is teamwork. If you ask anyone in the band, we are part of a community," said Sahasra. "It also instills a sense of integrity, since we must practice individually and at school." 

Benjamin plays the French horn in the band and the mellophone for the school's marching band. Interestingly, his inspiration to pursue music came from the popular TV show The Simpsons. He originally wanted to play the saxophone like Lisa Simpson. There were already many students playing it when he started in sixth grade, so he opted for his second choice. With high school on the horizon next year, this performance offers him another way to continue honing his musical talents.

Cuthbertson Middle is not just taking center stage; it is sharing its secrets. Ebert and her students will be leading one of the presentations. It will give band directors an inside look at the rehearsal techniques that help her craft these harmonious works. The students will receive a piece of music they've not played before, so Ebert can show how they go through the process of learning it.

"I'm a little nervous about being in front of people from across the state for a clinic. It's important to do it because we have a band run by an incredible director, and it's always good to share knowledge," said Benjamin.

Ebert's husband, Todd, who is the band director at Cuthbertson High, will be leading a separate session at the convention. He has also been assisting in preparing her students, as the two schools work closely together. 

"At the high school, we have a mentor program called Free Melodies. Students who participate in it come to the middle school once a week to mentor the sixth-graders. Part of the mentorship includes showing the younger students how to perform specific techniques on instruments," said Todd Ebert. 

The spotlight, however, doesn't shine solely on Cuthbertson Middle. Marshville Elementary and Union Elementary, both under the leadership of music teacher Doug Rowe, have scored their golden ticket to the NCMEA Convention. The last time elementary students graced the convention stage was in 2019.

"I am beyond proud of this opportunity for our students. It's not just a performance; it's a celebration of student dedication and a display of their excellence in the arts," said Rowe. "Mostly middle and high school bands get to experience this."

Several years ago, Rowe worked as a student-teacher alongside Katie and Todd Ebert. Now, he guides a new generation of students toward their musical aspirations.

Rowe's students, from grades three to five, will take the stage to perform a captivating array of solos and group songs. Their musical renditions will feature a variety of accompaniments, including drums and ukuleles. With a blend of talents from two schools, the program will include three major ensemble pieces for the entire group, along with smaller chamber ensembles representing each school. 

"I chose students by their musical abilities, but also those with persistence in class. I want students who are continuously going to try to grow as musicians. I chose five students from each grade level from both schools. We have a total of 30 students participating," said Rowe.

Fifth grader Walker Mills' favorite part about music is the different genres and options it provides. He's nervous and excited about performing with his friends and students from another school. 

"I'll be playing the ukulele in one of the performances. I don't want to mess up because it's a privilege to do this," said Walker, a student at Marshville Elementary. "What I like most about music is that it brings people together. We are meeting students from another school because of it."

Two other students from Marshville are poised to assume solo roles. Marquise Beattey Jr., a third grader, has been cultivating his drumming talents since the age of two and will be spotlighted in several performances. Not to be outdone, fifth grader Zyon Wentz has been honing her craft for as long as she can remember and will lend her powerful vocals to a rendition of Andra Day's Rise Up.

"Last year, I saw Zyon sing the song at a Juneteenth celebration. I knew then that I wanted her to sing it for this convention. She was so good and is even better now," said Rowe.

The students at Union worked just as hard. Lincoln Naitu, a third grader, and Maci Funderdurk, a fifth grader, enjoy how Rowe introduces them to new sounds, instruments and songs. Lincoln said he takes the time to explain each concept in detail and encourages them to explore their creativity. He loves how Rowe challenges and encourages them to express themselves.

"Music teaches us new things and allows us to use instruments we haven't used before, such as the ukulele. What I like the most is to sing and play the piano," said Maci. "Our rehearsal performance will help us gain even more confidence for the giant one this weekend."

The entire group rehearsal will be a performance on Friday, Nov. 3, in Plyler-Griffin Recital Hall at Wingate University for family, friends and the school community. The students have been working on their pieces for a long time and are eager to share them with everyone before they travel to Winston. 

After the students perform at the NCMEA, they will also visit the School of the Arts at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to tour five different conservatories of music, dance, design and production and drama and filmmaking. The students will eat lunch on campus and be treated to an Afro-Cuban drumming class and will tour the campus. 

Rowe is also a presenter at the convention, where he will conduct two sessions named Ready, Set, Drum! and Easy as 123. Besides him, there are two more presenters from Union County Public Schools - Joseph Girgenti, the music and band teacher at Walter Bickett Elementary, and AJ Calpo, the Chorus Director and Piano Instructor at Sun Valley High School.