And the band played on….Onaway band back strong

by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor
The rating at the band festival was near perfect for 33 members of the Onaway High School (OHS)band, Feb. 24, at the band festival with the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association in Petoskey.
OHS band members played three pieces in the concert hall. 1317-ohs-band
One had to be a march, another had to be from a list of required pieces for a Class D band and the third was the director’s choice.
The high school band, composed of 33 members in grades 9-12, performed “Colonel Bogey,” “Legend of Devil’s Lake” and “Marching Song.”
The three judges graded performing bands on tone, intonation, rhythm, technique and interpretation.
Bands have to perform a sight-reading piece, where they are given five minutes to learn a brand-new piece of music before performing it for a judge.
The OHS band received a division II rating, or excellent classification. The only rating that could have been better was a division I rating, a college-like level of  superior. It’s a very difficult mark to reach.
During a time when OHS athletes were stealing headlines in late February and early March, it was the band bringing home the accolades to Onaway.
“I thought they did very, very well,” said Liz Fedewa, the school’s director of bands since the start of the 2015-16 school year. “You could tell that everyone was focused, they knew what their part was supposed to be and how it fit in with the rest of the group. They just made it a very musical performance. It was something that was nice to listen to and you were getting music and not just notes on a page. I am very proud of them for that.”3916-Onaway-Band
The middle school band, with 34 members in grades 6-8, performed “Kitty Hawk March,” “Canon of Peace,” and “Ghost Ship.” The middle school band earned an overall division III rating of “Good” with a division II “Excellent” in the sight-reading room. The judge in that room was especially impressed with their performance once he learned that half of the band is sixth-grade students who have only been playing for a year.
It’s a band program that always has been highly visible in the community. They are in the annual Fourth of July parade and take part in the Memorial Day ceremony at the courthouse. They can be seen at halftime at the football field, or in the stands during the winter months at many basketball games.
It’s a program that has come a long way in seven years. It may be hard to believe, but the program was on the budget-cutting chopping block in March 2010.
For decades, OHS band was one of the top programs in northern Michigan, and like many Michigan school districts, then and now, when there is too much red ink on the bottom line, school officials inevitably are forced to look at making cuts and have no choice to look at the arts as a way to balance budgets.
The budget-cutting axe was swinging in the direction of Onaway band that spring.
Members of the Onaway Area Community Schools Board of Education had a workshop meeting in early March to hear from the community about the proposal.
It was more about saving money by not having to pay full-time band director Lexie Signor’s salary in the next fiscal year.
The school board and administrators faced some tough decision the last couple of couple of decades, including the closing of Millersburg Elementary School, but this one ranked right up there.
“It was certainly one of the more difficult ones,” said business manager/interim superintendent Rod Fullerton.
The media center was packed with interested students and parents.
There were many who spoke in favor of keeping band.
Andrew Mullins, an Onaway High School alumni, who was very active in the program when he was in school, spoke about how important it was to him. “Through my involvement in band I was able to take advantage of a lot of opportunities,” said Mullins.
Many students know band is an important resume piece when applying to college.
There was no action taken that night. The program took a hit that school year with Signor being laid off, but she was preparing to leave for Missouri to pursue other forms of study, regardless of the board’s decision. Many in the community did not know that was in the works, said Fullerton. “When we knew she was leaving, that was one of the reasons we looked at that area,” he said.
There were a few contentious meetings that followed, but eventually the board decided to post the position of a part-time band director.
“There were many folks who said I could not hire a part-time director, but we did,” said Fullerton.
Jennifer Smercina was hired and given the task of keeping it going, all while working fewer hours than her predecessors.
“We knew we were not going to be able to bring someone back full-time,” said Fullerton. “We were able to partner with Pellston.” Smercina worked part time in both towns.
Smercina made it work for five school years before moving to Ohio with her husband during the summer of 2015, and not a surprise; she is the director of bands for Clearview Local School District in Ohio.
Fedewa, who had been with Interlochen Center for the Arts, came on board in 2015.
“We have had success in recent years but Fedewa adds a certain polish to the band that is clearly visible,” said Fullerton.
The budget has stabilized, and by no means is the situation perfect, said Fullerton; but it has gotten better from a budgetary standpoint.For the band, there has been significant growth with Smercina and Fedewa. Fedewa is on staff as director of bands and teaches middle school math.
“She has been a great hire,” said Fullerton. “ I think she has been fantastic. I think she is getting it done in the math room and is doing a great job with the band.”
The one important area of growth has been at the elementary level.
The year before Smercina left, beginning band program was not available.
“It is so hard for kids to start in middle school when they have never held an instrument, cannot read music and they are in with eighth- graders who have been playing for three years,” she said. “The ability to have fifth-grade band back gives them a year to figure out how the instrument works and how to make music before they are thrown in, is huge…it has been really helpful.”
Back in college, Fedewa was a piccolo player for the Central Michigan University marching band and with her connections in Mt. Pleasant, she was able to take two groups of Onaway students down for band day in 2015 and 2016. Band members performed on the football field, joining the Marching Chippewas, as well as all-star band from around the state.
At the moment, both bands are preparing for the spring concert April 20. It will be free and open to the public. They also will have to tune up for “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a graduation staple.
Secondary principal Marty Mix said band has been a vital piece of the school.
“We have been very blessed with amazing instructors that have brought out the best in the students,” said Mix. “I know, for me, it was one of the best parts of school I enjoyed.  We have had a number of great musicians and instructors that have made the community very proud.”
Unlike sports, “band never loses”, high school student Guy Ginseng wrote for the LA Times.
And in Onaway, it’s a winning program that has continued a level of excellence even through lean times.
It’s a tribute to all involved.