"I get more amazed every year that goes by," Leshowitz said last week. "You think that it has to come to an end, because all good things eventually do. You think like it's too good to be true. But I am always amazed just how remarkably talented and dedicated our students are. It keeps getting better every year."
Last Wednesday evening, Leshowitz was among approximately 300 guests in attendance for the school's annual Christmas concert in the auditorium. Some 100 musicians, along with a chorus of 150 students, performed the traditional Christmas carols, including a majestic version of the "Hallelujah Chorus" as the finale.
And once again, the music doctor walked out of the school shaking his head in awe at the performance level. "When it's all said and done, you totally lose sight and forget that they're just kids," Leshowitz said. "Most of them don't take private lessons. They all play together and work hard with whatever time they have. It's absolutely the greatest feeling in the world when you see it all come together. I sit and hear rehearsals and wonder how those sounds could ever come together. But they do it, every time. It's as good as any professional performance I've heard."
Hours of practice
A lot of the credit for the success has to go to the dedicated band director, George Haviland, who spends countless hours with the musicians in a variety of roles. For most of the fall, Haviland coordinates the school's marching band, which performs at halftime of football games, as well as selected competitions.
Last month, the North Bergen High School marching band placed fifth at the U.S. Scholastic Marching Band Association's regional championships held at Franklin Stadium in Philadelphia. It marked the first time that North Bergen had placed in a marching band competition of that magnitude.
However, once the marching band material is tossed aside, Haviland has all of three weeks to prepare for the Christmas concert.
"As soon as the marching band season was over, we got right into it," Haviland said. "We had maybe six weeks to prepare and just three weeks of rehearsals, so it was a tremendous undertaking. We got together every day after school for rehearsals. With a band our size, that's also tough to do, because a lot of the kids have other activities that they participate in."
Although the students enjoy themselves immensely, they are also very serious about their craft.
"We know that it takes a lot of hard work to get ready for the concert," said senior Andrea Borja, who plays the clarinet. "Everyone in the band is very serious about what they do. We all have a lot of dedication to go to rehearsals, to practice on our own. Everyone puts a lot of time into it."
"We have fun, but we pick it up when we have to," said senior Joe Vitale, who plays the saxophone. "We keep in mind that it's fun, but we're very serious about what we do."
It takes a year-long commitment to be a part of the band. First, there's band camp, which is one full week of learning marching band material during a week in August.
"It's nine to six every day, with an hour lunch," said Haviland, who has been teaching music in the high school for 19 years. "Bring your bottled water and prepare to sweat, because we're out there, working hard.
Added Haviland, "Then, we go into the marching band season; then comes the Christmas concert. From there, we have the grammar school tour with our jazz band and we play jazz and classics in April, followed by our spring concert. We also play in the Teen Arts Festival at New Jersey City University, where we've been the best jazz band for the last 10 years. And then, there's whatever else is up. It absolutely doesn't stop."
Haviland also expects a lot from the band members.
"Because of the marching band performances, it gets very physical," Haviland said. "We encourage each student to achieve the most musically. I don't expect everyone to be a music major, but we put them on a college level practice regimen, along with a personal practice plan. We expect our students to practice the minimum of a half-hour a day."
"The beauty of it is that the kids really want it," Leshowitz said. "They're in the music room during study time, during lunch period. It's great, because I get to work with kids who want to be there. They're not forced to be there. They all want it."
Senior Tim Murphy, who plays the tuba, can attest to that.
"It really has a great family atmosphere with everyone in the band," Murphy said. "Everyone gets along so well. It's like a big family."
"Nothing is yours," said senior clarinet player Sandra Diaz. "You share everything."
Wednesday night, they shared the applause.
"It is exciting to see everything come together the way we did," Borja said. "We play Christmas songs and everyone gets in a 'ho-ho-ho' mood. But we were so good and I felt so proud to be a part of it."
"Any chance that you have to play in front of an audience is welcomed," Murphy said. "I want that opportunity every time. But it's such a very good performance and everyone is so happy. I think a lot of people were awed by it. I know I was."
Haviland noticed other audience members.
"People sit in the audience, expecting to hear one thing, and then, their jaws just drop open," Haviland said. "They cannot believe they're hearing high school kids, especially with the 'Hallelujah' finale, which everyone is familiar with, but not many hear it that way. I've been doing it for 19 years and I always get a good rush from it. And that's the bottom line. It's for the kids and by the kids. We somehow took it to the next level and that was wonderful."