OLD TOWN — Jessica Maurais was in the fourth grade when she first picked up a trumpet. Like her three siblings, she started playing in Old Town grade schools, where her father, Owen, is now superintendent.
The long hours of practicing and the extra time spent in band rooms and gymnasiums before and after school paid off for the high school junior last month when she and 20 other members of the Old Town High School jazz ensemble won high scores at a prestigious music festival in Orlando, Fla. And they had a chance to perform for hundreds of families at Disney World over April school vacation.
“It was an awesome trip and a chance to compete at a national level,” the 17-year-old said. “Kids from all over the country heard us. At Disney World, we performed at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe on a real stage. Everybody could hear us and the people all got into it. It was a totally different atmosphere for us. Usually we play in gyms and school auditoriums.”
All this is old hat to Old Town band director Jeffrey Priest. Four years ago, the jazz ensemble was named Grand Champion at the same festival. For 15 weekends throughout the year, 25-30 schools compete and are ranked by three nationally recognized judges on a scale where 100 is the highest possible score, according to Priest.
“We won our weekend with scores of 97, 96 and 96,” he said. “Those are higher than the scores we earned in ’96, so we are in a good position to be named Grand Champion again. Our weekend was the ninth of 15, so it will be a few weeks before we know how well we did overall.”
The jazz ensemble is made up of the best musicians in the school, said Priest. The 21 students must audition to be a part of the group that uses only eight different instruments. Last year, the group took first in state competition, and this year it came in second.
Priest believes the Old Town music program does so well at contests because it is part of the curriculum, not an extracurricular activity. The jazz ensemble rehearses three times a week during school hours, but also has 65 to 70 outside commitments each year.
While Old Town students were in Orlando, 145 students from Bangor High School ventured to the Big Apple to compete in the Heritage Festival. The concert, chamber and jazz choirs, along with the concert and jazz bands, performed at the historic Riverside Church. They also took a musical tour of New York City.
The concert choir earned a silver medal and was ranked third; the chamber choir a gold and a second; the jazz choir a gold, but no ranking as it was the only group in its division. The concert band earned a bronze and the jazz band a silver, however, the bands were not ranked as were the choirs.
Choral director George Redman and band director Scott Burditt agreed that the trip afforded students an opportunity to perform in a facility with near-perfect acoustics. The judges provided extensive written and taped comments on the technical aspects of their performances, which are very helpful, the teachers said.
“This was a very wonderful trip,” said Redman. “It was important for students to experience the cultural opportunities offered in a big city. Taking such a trip with their friends and fellow students also builds a strong sense of community that improves their individual self-esteem and their ability to work as a group.”
Students and booster organizations raised the money for both trips. Redman estimated the New York trip cost a total of $45,000 and Priest said the Florida trip was $21,000.