By Tessa Raebeck
At the beginning of each band class, Austin Remson has a dilemma. Does he tell Thomas Brooks—who is, without fail, playing music from memory on the piano—to stop playing and get to his seat, or does he let him play a little longer?
Mr. Remson, director of the seventh and eighth grade band at Pierson Middle School, has to tell Mr. Brooks to take his seat so the class can begin, but his reluctant strictness has paid off. Earlier this month, Thomas earned first chair for alto saxophone in the New York State Honor Band for middle school students.
Sponsored by the New York State Band Directors Association, the award is “a big honor,” according to Mr. Remson. “He made our school very proud.”
Students have to achieve a certain level on New York State School Music Association evaluations and earn a certain grade in music class in order to be considered. If they meet the criteria, the music teacher recommends the student and a committee of music teachers from around the state selects the best students, about 65 in total from grades six through eight who are then inducted into the Honor Band.
“He received a perfect score at NYSSMA,” Mr. Remson said of Thomas, “so that put him in qualification to be recommended for the honor band. Along with this NYSSMA score, they want to know what his extracurriculars are, whatever music things he does and how he performs in the class—and everything was very high achieving.”
Upon arriving at the symposium, held from March 7 to 9 in Syracuse, Thomas auditioned for his seat, achieving first chair. After rehearsing for two full days for seven hours straight, the honored students performed a concert.
Thomas’s music career started five years ago, when he was in third grade, with private piano lessons with Sue Daniels.
After asking to play drums but having to settle for his second choice, the saxophone, because the drum section at the Sag Harbor Elementary School was already full, Thomas could have been disappointed, but instead he was hooked.
“It just happened to be that way,” he said of how he came to play the instrument, “and then I liked it.”
“It’s just a really fun instrument. I like the sounds. I like the way our band sounds when we play a really good song. And I don’t know, it’s just lots of fun,” he added.
Thomas also plays baseball, basketball and soccer competitively and works as a camp counselor at Future Stars at SYS, but music is his true passion.
“I like to listen to all sorts,” he said. “I mean, anything that sounds nice I’ll listen to. I like playing it just as much as listening to it. On iTunes, there’s anything you can listen to, so I listen to anything.”
Thomas likes to buy songs on iTunes, listen to them and then figure out how to play the song on the piano.
“I’ll kind of just think about it and then I’ll try to play it,” said Thomas, who is now in his second year of Mr. Remson’s seventh and eighth grade ensemble.
“He has a very good ear for music,” said Mr. Remson. “He just loves music, I can see it. And as someone who loves music also, I see a lot of myself in some of my students that really love music and it’s great.”
“He’s got a real natural talent and he’s very receptive if I give him a direction in how to play something,” he added. “Two years ago, when he came into the ensemble, he had difficulty articulating the notes. Within a week, he was perfect… He just excelled and excelled and excelled.”
Besides his natural talent, Mr. Remson said, Thomas excels due to his hard work and devotion to constantly improving. NYSSMA evaluates students on levels 1 through 6 and Thomas is already preparing to perform at level 5—despite not yet being in high school.
“I did level 1 in fourth grade and then I just went on,” he said.
At NYSSMA, students prepare a piece at their respective level to perform in front of a judge. They are graded on different criteria—tone quality, intonation, musicality, rhythm—and if they do well enough they can be invited to play in honor ensembles.
Thomas was accepted into the select ensembles for the Hamptons Music Educators Association and the Suffolk County Music Educators Association, but could not attend because he was performing in the state honor band the same weekend.
If Thomas has an upcoming event, such as the state band, he practices about 14 hours a week. If he doesn’t have anything on the horizon, he still dedicates at least six hours a week to practicing.
Thomas is the first Pierson Middle School student to be named to the State Honor Band, let alone achieve a first chair position.
“It’s going to be much more difficult to get into these kinds of things because I’ll be the youngest one [in the high school division] as a freshman,” Thomas said. “But, I’ll still try for HMEA and maybe I could get into the high school honor band…it’ll be hard, I have to work on my NYSSMA solos.”
Of the honor he’s already earned, Thomas said, “I guess it looks good on a college application.”
Thomas’s future plans are up in the air. “I could do that community band in Sag Harbor,” he said.