“Who came in number one in the country?” asked Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner from the podium at this year’s high school graduation. “The Weehawken Marching Band!”
It was another good year for the band, which has gotten used to collecting awards and accolades. The designation Turner was referring to is the USBands 2013 National Championship. Weehawken took home top honors in the Group 1A division for marching bands with 40 or fewer musicians.
Among the string of other first-place awards they won this year was the New Jersey State Championship. But perhaps their proudest moment came when they marched alongside Mickey Mouse and friends in Disney World.
Hanging with Mickey
“We’ve been going down to Florida for many years,” said band director Michael Lichtenfeld.
In order to march in the parade within Disney World, a band must audition on tape or DVD and be accepted.
“We started the process last year, sent in tapes of last year’s band,” explained Lichtenfeld, who has been band director at Weehawken High School for five years. “Once they accept you then they say, ‘okay, we want you to perform at this location or that location.’ It’s very hard to get on the Main Street parade route and that’s where we were this year. We did it once before.”
The band won first place in both the New Jersey State Championship and the USBands 2013 National Championship 1A division.
The school travels to Disney every other year, alternating with a class trip to Europe. “The [Disney] trip’s a really huge pull for getting kids into the band, enticing people to join, because we’re the only ones who actually get to go down,” said Lichtenfeld.
So how was it performing in the Magic Kingdom? “Magical,” said eleventh grader Nagham Dahboul with a laugh. “I didn’t understand why people loved it so much. But then when I went, like we walked into the store and I started crying. It’s just something that I’ll always remember and I miss it and I want to go back.”
“It’s cool because we had a scavenger hunt down in Disney and Universal,” said eleventh grader Chase Jennings. “It’s a lot of fun because you have to really look out for things that you wouldn’t normally notice, like hidden Mickeys or other stuff on the list.”
“It was really fun,” agreed eleventh grader Alyssa Genfeld. “I remember I got to meet another school’s marching band and they were really nice. And it was really fun performing for the jazz band and marching in the parade.”
Many of the students participate in both the marching band and the jazz band. “The jazz band has been a growing program in the school,” said Lichtenfeld. “Last year was the first year we did any festivals or competitions with the group. And this year for the first time we took the group traveling down to Disney.”
“We were able to perform on the waterfront stage at downtown Disney, which was an incredible experience for the kids,” he continued. “We did stuff like Blues Brothers. We did some standards, swing stuff. We also do some pop rock. We also do movie themes, like we did James Bond’s ‘Skyfall.’ It’s a traditional big-band style group.”
The highlight for many, though, was the march down Main Street.
“This was our first year leading the electric light parade at night,” said eleventh grader Marcella Desharnais. “There were a lot more people than any other parade we’ve gone to. They were cheering for us, saying ‘What school are you from? You guys are awesome!’”
“We usually do long parades, like the St. Patrick’s Day parade around here, the Memorial Day parade,” said Lichtenfeld. Disney is different. “It’s about a mile, mile and a half parade route. It’s a short parade but everybody always gets really tired. It’s the heat. We wear wool uniforms because we’re up in the northeast. Down there, usually it’s 90 or so degrees during the day and at night it kind of cools down, which is nice.”
On the final day the kids had the opportunity to visit Universal Studios, where they reveled in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Another highlight was catching Cirque du Soleil’s “La Nouba” show, on which they base some of their performances.
A winning team
The entire band program includes over 80 students. “When we go to performances like parades or football games we take everybody with us,” said Lichtenfeld. “But since we start our students in seventh grade and most other schools start in fourth grade, we kind of have a feeder program set up, so we only take the 40 top musicians and color guard members to competitions with us. The top 40 in grades nine through 12.”
About 26 students participate in the jazz band.
Lichtenfeld estimates that 75 percent of the band is female. The reason? “Football,” he said. “When you’re a part of the band you can do any sport you want – other than football.”
One of the female students had a different answer. “Because girls are more mature,” she offered.
Also accompanying the band on the Florida trip were Assistant Band Director Tim Galan, Science Teacher Casey Eustace, and French Teacher Carmelina Lista. School Principal Dr. Peter Olivieri and Assistant Principal Stephen Spinosa and their wives flew down to join them. Color Guard Instructor Michele McCormick was pregnant and unable to attend.
Lichtenfeld also acknowledged the support of Superintendent of Schools Kevin McClellan, Mayor Turner and the Town Council, the Board of Education and President Richard Barsa, Drill/Visual Designer George Lavelle, Percussion Advisor Tom Mulvaney, and the rest of the marching band staff.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Student wins first place at Teen Arts
Tenth grader Bonnie Callahan came to band director Michael Lichtenfeld earlier this year to ask for something more to do beyond band practice and music class. “She’s planning to major in music,” said Lichtenfeld. “She was looking for a little bit extra to improve her skills, challenge her a little bit.”
And so she wound up practicing her trumpet skills on “Concert Etude” by Alexander Goedicke, accompanied by pianist Katie Dewan, a freshman at the school. Performing the piece on May 29 at the New Jersey Hudson County Teen Arts Festival, Callahan took first place in her category.
“We worked on it for a number of months before the competition,” said Callahan, who first picked up the trumpet two years ago.
Surprisingly, she was relatively new to musical performance when she won the competition. “I sang when I was younger but this is my first instrument,” she said.
The competition had elements of both a TV reality show and a music clinic. “The way it worked was all the competitors stayed in one room,” said Callahan. “We watched each other perform. After we performed there was an adjudication process, which means being critiqued in front of the group. So basically you get to watch your competitors get critiqued as well.”
“But it was a very friendly atmosphere where the adjudicator not only directed the critique to you but to everyone else,” she continued, “so if your competitor made a mistake it wasn’t just on them, it was a lesson for everyone. There were a lot of things that the judge pointed out that I had noticed but didn’t really know how to fix and he pointed out some ways to fix them. Even competitor’s mistakes that I have done before, when he corrected their mistakes I learned from them too. It was really good advice. No one had ever explained it to us in that kind of way.”
Callahan hopes to pursue a career in music. Her goal is to “get into a good music school. Hopefully with a scholarship of some sort. School’s expensive.”