ESM to host New York State School Music Association festival

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Dan Graf and Kenneth Vignona are looking forward to this weekend—being over. Mr. Vignona, the band director at the Eastport South Manor School District, and Mr. Graf, who is the choir director, have spent more than a month preparing to host this year’s New York State School Music Association festival.

Better know by its acronym, NYSSMA, the organization tests elementary and secondary music students throughout New York State. And each spring, students attend evaluation festivals to be adjudicated.

These festivals take place at local high schools within the association’s 15 zones, each of which cover a geographic region of the state. Usually, high schools in each region take turns hosting the festival every few years.

This is the first year that Eastport South Manor has hosted the event. Mr. Graf and Mr. Vignona said that preparing for the NYSSMA festival was a thrill, but taxing at the same time due to the overwhelming amount of work involved with organizing the honored event.

Nearly 4,000 students from 61 school districts are expected to attend the festival, which takes place at the high school on Friday, May 9, from 4 to 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, May 10, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The two music teachers said juggling evaluations of the 4,000 students with 81 judges, who must also be fed, has been akin to scheduling Major League Baseball playoff games.

Mr. Graf noted that the festival at Eastport South Manor has been one of the largest of its kind ever to take place in the state. On Tuesday, with the help of a small army of students, Mr. Graf and Mr. Vignona rushed around their office as they furiously went over last minute details and answered an onslaught of phone calls and e-mails.

“I spoke with the assigner of NYSSMA adjudicators, John Krystek,” Mr. Graf said. “And he said—in his 40 years—this is the largest NYSSMA festival that he’s ever seen.”

“On Friday,” Mr. Vignona added, “we have 40 minutes to set up 81 judge’s rooms. That includes clearing the classrooms, moving 38 pianos, one to each room, and we have to put a music stand and chair in each classroom. And we have to do it all between the end of school and when the judges get here.”

Neither Mr. Graf, nor Mr. Vignona said they would relax until the last student has finished performing and the school doors are locked. Still, the glimmer of a light at the end of a tunnel sparkled in their eyes.

“It really is an honor,” Mr. Graf added. “But we’ll be so glad when it’s over.”

At each festival, hundreds of students go before music professionals to perform solos they have prepared, as well as scales and sight reading. The judges grade the students according to defined guidelines set by the association.

They also write comments, which are returned to the students later along with their grade. The grades are then certified and sent to the school that each child attends, as well as logged by the state. Auditions take place for both soloists and groups, in categories including voice, percussion, and band/orchestra instrumental.

Eastport South Manor students were required to assist the music department in shifts during the two day NYSSMA festival. The music department also asked the Music Boosters to coordinate the sale of refreshments and meals for the adjudicators, who are coming from as far away as Buffalo.

Mr. Vignona and Mr. Graf said they have been able to lean heavily on students, including high school seniors Amanda Sottosanti, 17, and Ethan Vogt, 18, both of Manorville, for a helping hand. One of Ethan’s jobs was to help Mr. Vignona secure rooms throughout the high school where the auditions would be performed.

Ethan, who plays the bass clarinet and plans to attend Mitchell College in New London, Connecticut, this fall, noted that although audition rooms had been designated on paper, they needed to be physically investigated as well.

“We had to make sure that the rooms are all real, because you could end up with someone auditioning in a janitor’s closet with mops,” he quipped. “And we wouldn’t want that.”

Amanda has been spending her lunch hours and after school time helping Mr. Graf and Mr. Vignona with the mountains of paperwork that have needed to be sorted and sifted through.

Also a bass clarinetist, Amanda said she too was looking forward to the festival being successfully completed, but noted her work has been a labor of love.

“I love the music department,” she said. “I’ve been very involved in it since I was a freshman, and this is like my home. It’ll be exciting to see the festival finally come together, because it’s exciting for our school. But once it’s done, it’ll be a relief.”

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