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1,000 STRONG: Five Years On The Stairway…

I originally took up the clarinet to help out a friend.  At the end of third grade, tormented with indecision about which musical instrument to play, I had a conversation with my friend Nicole. “Ava, you have to play the clarinet with me,” she said.  “All the scary boys are playing it, too!” And so, I began playing the clarinet. Now, nine years later, Nicole and I, along with many of the “scary boys,” are still clarinetists, most of us in Santa Monica High School’s Wind Ensemble. As a student in the SMMUSD music program, I first heard  murmurings about the annual Stairway of the Stars when I was in fifth grade.  Almost all of my friends who played instruments were in the District Honor Orchestra, made up of mostly fourth and fifth graders.  I heard stories about how all of the scary boys had fallen asleep on each other during Honor Orchestra rehearsals. Upon reaching Lincoln Middle School, I continued my journey into the depths of the music program.  The highlight of my sixth grade year in band was when the boy who sat next to me discovered that there were ants in his clarinet.  The band director, instead of being sympathetic or even mildly amused, became angry with the boy for being disruptive and sent him out of the classroom for the remainder of period. In seventh grade, as a member of the highest level band at Lincoln, I got my first chance to be in Stairway of the Stars (the highest level orchestra, band, and choir from each district middle school and high school participate in Stairway).  I soon discovered that Stairway was, by far,  the most grandiose musical event of each year (let’s put it this way: there are two performances, one on Thursday and one on Friday, and with over 1000 musicians participating, it seems as though there are more performers than there are people in the audience). As a middle school student in Stairway, I remember being struck by the high school students.  I remember, in particular, one gorgeous boy who walked around with a tuner; us middle school girls all fell in love with him as we swooned and adjusted the joints on our clarinets so that we were playing in tune.  Now, as one of those high school students, I try to bond with the middle school students who sit near me.  This year, I was happy to see that the middle school boy I sat next to last year was only a couple of seats away from me.  I discovered that he hadn’t lost his talent for blowing spit bubbles that float in the air. Security at Stairway is something of a legend.  In years past, it’s been extremely strict, but that doesn’t stop students from attempting to sneak in candy, cell phones, pens, and books.  (In my opinion, by forcing students to develop elaborate schemes for smuggling things into Stairway, the district is fostering criminal mastermindedness in all of its young musicians.)  I must admit, I have been a delinquent in Stairways past.  In eighth grade, I brought my crocheting to pass the time.  I used black yarn so that it would blend in with my concert clothes.  And in tenth grade, my friends and I brought Starburst wrappers and used them for origami. This year, for Thursday night’s performance, I decided to go all-natural; I didn’t try to sneak anything past security.  I was prepared for security to be of airport quality, with people getting patted down in inappropriate places and being frightened into submission by interrogations in the Civic Auditorium’s basement.  However, unlike years past, Thursday’s security consisted solely of a security guard who asked, “Cell phone?”  I answered, “No,” and was allowed to enter the auditorium.  On Friday, I snuck in a pencil and paper so I could take notes on the performance for this article (while writing during the performance, I began to feel guilty and scared that the music teachers would be offended by my writing, and thus I stopped taking notes.  If you are in any way unsatisfied with this article, blame it on the security at Stairway).  Once at Stairway, I collected some contraband. One friend gave me some candy and another friend passed me a lanyard (the note attached to the lanyard read, “For Ava.  Clarinet.  The one in black.”  I thought it very clever, considering everyone in Stairway is required to wear black). The common perception of Stairway is that it is boring and way too long.  I may be more tolerant than most people, but having sat through the same performance — once on Thursday and then again on Friday — I can say that it is somewhat boring to hear someone accept an award for the second time, but the show itself is not too long.  There is enough variety in the music to keep the performance from becoming tedious, and the people who run the show seem to recognize that everyone wants it to end as soon as possible.  Of course, there are the unavoidable award acceptance speeches that go something like this: “I know you want me to speak quickly” (rowdy, enthusiastic applause) “so I won’t talk for more than a couple minutes”…(78 minutes later)… “So let’s get on with the show!  Thank you.” (Polite, exhausted applause). This year, singer Jackson Browne, who was billed as a speaker for Stairway, only spoke at the Thursday performance, leaving those who had hoped to see him on Friday with only Tom Whaley, the Fine Arts Coordinator for the district (Mr. Whaley is not a bad speaker, it’s just that he’s not quite a famous musician like Browne).  District music teachers also spoke, introducing upcoming sets of songs by saying things such as “let’s embark on the next step of our musical staircase.”  Oy. As I sat in the Civic Auditorium on Friday evening, it began to sink in that I was at my fifth and final Stairway.  When Mr. Whaley called for all the seniors to stand up and be recognized, I couldn’t believe it was happening.  As I played my last note of “Stairway to the Stars,” I did my best not to become emotional as I looked around and saw Nicole and the scary boys. Stairway certainly has its problems.  It has been documented many a time that you can’t hear the choirs singing when the band and orchestra are playing at the same time.  And I find it somewhat disturbing that the Honor Orchestra feels it needs some weird gimmick so that  the audience will find the kids cute.  This year, the children were made to sing and sway from side to side during one of their songs – must the coordinators be reminded that it’s an honor orchestra, not a choir or dance troupe? But the charms are what make Stairway worthwhile.  For two nights, everyone in Santa Monica comes together for the sake of music.  For the performers, it is a time to gather to play music together. We make new friends, become inspired, become role models, and discover new things about each other.  If it weren’t for Stairway, who would have known that the kid who sits next to you in Sociology class is actually an incredible drummer, or that the girl who played soccer with you in sixth grade has the same flute teacher as you?  For the audience, it’s a night of mostly pleasurable music — from traditional choir and orchestra pieces to the exciting songs of the jazz band.  And perhaps the best thing about Stairway is that it anyone who ever doubted the music program is reminded over and over again how essential music is in creating amazing children.

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