It was a record-setting year for the music program at Westwood’s Thurston Middle School. For over 20 years, the school’s band, chorus and orchestra have participated in the Great East Music Festival. This year, for the first time, each took home the festival’s highest award: a platinum medal for outstanding performance.
The Great East Music Festival is considered one of the premiere music festivals in the northeast. Students from across New England and are evaluated on their stage performance. They are not scored against other schools taking part. Instead, the festival focuses on clinics and evaluations to help each participant improve their skills.
Alicia Winslow is head of Thurston Middle School’s orchestra, which had 38 members at the festival this year.
“We’re incredibly proud,” she said. “This is the orchestra’s third platinum in a row. It is so exciting to continue the tradition of excellence. They’re a fabulous group to work with and really stepped up to the plate this year.”
The 80-member chorus was the first group to perform, and set a high bar with their first-ever platinum award.
“I could tell right away. As soon as I heard their first vowel sound, I knew that this was going to be their performance,” said chorus director Diana Legere. “We’ve traditionally gotten gold. I could tell as soon as they started singing that they were listening to one another and following all the directions. They knew it, too. They could hear it. The festival was the performance where they just shined.”
For the Thurston band, it was the second time since 2016 they scored platinum.
“My kids kept telling me that they were going to get platinum,” said Allison Sanders, the band director. “I had complete confidence in them, but they really put their money where their mouth is and they stepped up. I was standing on the stage conducting, and I was getting so excited for them. It sounds so beautiful, that it was hard for me to stay focused.”
One difficulty the Westwood music program had to overcome was scheduling rehearsals so the band, chorus and orchestra could be there at the same time.
“They meet separately. It is such a challenge to get them all together to rehearse during the concert cycle,” explained Winslow. “They meet together only four or five times, so we are fortunate they are all hard working and do their part.”
Each group performed two selections, which were chosen to showcase their abilities. Typically, Sanders doesn’t select pop songs for their program.
“When I’m selecting music for the festival, I know what the judges are looking for,” said Sanders. “They’re looking for something that’s an important part of the literature. This year, one of our choices was ‘Africa’ by Toto. I was taking a big chance with this, but the kids pulled it off beautifully. One of the judges told us he doesn’t usually approve of pop songs, but we had a strong percussion section, which really made this choice work.”
The arts are a critical part of the curriculum in Westwood, a fact Sanders, Legere and Winslow all appreciate and the parents in the community support.
“With the emphasis on math and literacy, the kids need a different outlet to express themselves and also they need to exercise the other side of their brain,” said Sanders. “It’s really important that we continue to offer these opportunities to them.”