Martin High School has long exhibited
a certain kind of unintentional swagger when it comes to its performance arts, the chief reason being that after sitting in on a concert or two, audience members generally come to the same realization: This collective bunch of musicians and vocalists is awfully good.
Any form of braggadocio in the musical arts is considered inelegant – this isn’t football, you know. In fact, what senior vocalist Kate McGuire said the other day when asked about the school’s illustrious music program is about as grandiose as it gets:
”What I noticed when I first started here was how Martin seem to have this edge during events when other schools were present.”
McGuire and her cohorts had just returned from Carnegie Hall, of all places, where the chorale, wind symphony and symphony orchestra presented “An Evening with James Martin High School: Sounds of a New Generation,” on the storied and majestic Stern/Perelman stage.
After calming the nerves spawned by being in one of the world’s most recognizable venues, Martin pushed out a performance that resulted in a standing ovation and a flurry of emails to MHS Music Director Kay Owens.
Kind words from parents,
no doubt, but also piling up in her inbox were comments from jaded New Yorkers. “They’re New Yorkers; they go to the theater and performances the way we go to the movies,” Owens says.
Which means those who have been-there-done-that when it comes to musical performance were complimenting a high school some 1,500 miles outside the artistic confines of New York City.
Now, as for McGuire, what she meant about the Martin Edge was how many students arrive there after earning rock star status to learn that the place is full of other rock stars as talented as they are.
“We tend to appreciate our classmates’ talents and see it as an inspiration to work hard and get better,” McGuire says. “Just in my section of the choir, there’s so much healthy competition. A lot of schools don’t have that. That’s what makes it such a great place to be, musically.”
Owens and her directors, Brad McCann (bands) and Michael Stringer (orchestra) credit a strong feeder system of elementary schools along with Young and Boles junior highs. More than 1,000 students are enrolled in orchestra alone at Martin cluster feeder schools. As for healthy competition, Arlington ISD is strong enough to have earned the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation 2016 Best Communities for Music Education designation multiple times.
”We’re in a unique situation with the fine arts department where every area is strong,” says Owens. “Usually your band will be strong[er] or your choir will be strong[er]. That’s not true here.”
The choir routinely performs in state and national competitions, while the symphony’s UIL Sweepstakes Awards streak stands at 31. It has been a finalist of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Honor Orchestra Competition 11 times. In 2015, it was named the TMEA HW String Honor Orchestra.
Past spring trips have taken the students
to Chicago and Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. Owens says Carnegie was the result of brainstorming about assembling the orchestras and choirs for a major undertaking. That’s well over 200 students. Passing the muster at Carnegie is no easy or quick process. Martin had to send recordings to Carnegie back in 2014 before being approved a year later. Then it was time to go to work. In late January, they brought in Dr. James Meaders, Associate Artistic Director and Conductor with Distinguished Concerts International New York, to send the entire show through its paces and give his thoughts.
”It just gives us a new set of ears, so we can have a deeper level of critique,” says assistant chorale director Dylan Corder. Adds Owens: “Basically they hear the same thing we’ve been telling them. But it’s always good for them to hear from someone who isn’t us.”
As a point of reference for pre-show publicity, “An Evening with James Martin High School” was sold as the alma mater of country turned Christian crooner Tim Rushlow, but mostly the birthplace of a cappella sensation Pentatonix. Owens doesn’t mind grabbing hold of the popular group’s coattails; after all, it was Martin that helped launch them in the first place.
Owens recalls alums Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado and Mitch Grassi sitting in her office harmonizing “and just making up stuff.”
“I remember Martin being this environment of creativity because so many kids there were talented,” Grassi says. “Martin had such a rich tradition of music that it always had you thinking: so what can I do that’s different?”
Maldonado says the group started thinking more seriously about a future when the trio entered a radio competition to win a chance to meet the cast of Glee. They lost, but the seeds of Pentatonix were planted. They added Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola to the group and won the NBC competition show, “The Sing-Off.” It has been a whirlwind ever since.
”I can’t tell you how much the choir program at Martin influenced me,” says Hoying. “Mrs. Owens was – is – amazing, because she has a way of making you work hard and believe in yourself even when things aren’t really working the way you want. I remember it being a lot of rehearsing and this focus on musicality that has really helped us as a group.”
It’s that musicality focus
that keeps junior Brooks Knapton on his toes. He sang in the choirs at Boles but was excited, and concerned, over the time it took at Martin. The standards were high, the compositions more tricky, and equal talent was always standing right next him.
”The edge is that and staying so sharp by working so hard,” Knapton says. “Some of us might have complained about how much we rehearsed for Carnegie, but none of us were complaining when we walked on the stage and it hit us where we were and that we were prepared.”