SOUTH KINGSTOWN – While sports teams receive many opportunities throughout the school year to return home fresh off a win, those same chances are often few and far between for students in band, orchestra and choir. That only makes last weekend’s sweeping out-of-state wins that much sweeter for South Kingstown Music.

Last weekend, more than 100 students competed in the “Music in the Park” festival held in Middletown, NJ. All three South Kingstown High School groups received superior ranking, the highest award given for the level of performance and interpretation. 

“The kids really performed very, very well at a very high level,” said South Kingstown High School Instrumental Music Director Fritz Benz. “They were prepared, they knew what they were doing, they were enthusiastic and focused, and it was just a great experience all around.”

Seven schools in all took part in the festival this past Saturday, according to Benz. The unique opportunity is made available to high schools students across the country as an end-of-year assessment in or near numerous amusement parks, from California to Pennsylvania. 

“This is a good time for them to get out to a different place, sing with other choirs, play with other bands, see what else is out there, and get recognized if they do a good job,” said Choral Music and Theater Director Ryan Muir. “It’s a special thing that a lot of our students don’t get really ever.”

Although the music department was able to make a day trip last year for the first time in several years, there was lots of interest from students about the possibility of the music department offering a similar overnight trip, Benz said. This year’s trip gave them the unique opportunity to experience a Philadelphia and New Jersey itinerary, and a two-night stay in a hotel. 

The experience, according to Benz, gave kids “the opportunity to be together and be away from home, and to have that experience as a program, which Ryan Muir and myself think is an important part of a successful music program–giving kids the opportunity to travel, perform and compete out of state.” 

En route to the festival, students were able to spend the day in Philadelphia, where they spent time walking through historic downtown, viewing the Liberty Bell and paying a visit to the United States Constitutional Museum, according to Muir. After their performance at the New Jersey Six Flags, students were also able to enjoy a day in the amusement park. 

As exciting and validating of an experience as it was for students to take home so many awards and recognition for their performances, some of whom performed in two or in all three, the competition also provided students with a valuable learning experience. 

Each performance receives a running commentary from adjudicators, chiming in throughout the performance about what the band, orchestra or choir is doing well or things that could be improved. 

“It’s very informative and it’s a great educational tool for the kids,” Benz said. “They hear two different people commenting on their performance instead of their music teacher that does it every day. A lot of times they’re hearing the same things, but with a new voice. It carries a little more weight when they hear it from other people as well as us.”

On paper, all three performances scored in the 90s, out of 100, according to Benz. 

“The score sheets that are used for performances is standardized throughout the country at these festivals,” Benz said. “Everyone throughout the country is judged on national criteria of excellence in music.”

“I’ve been teaching for over 30 years, and it’s the best professional development a high school music teacher can get, because you’re getting independent evaluation and critique on your students’ achievement,” he added. 

One of the highest achieving South Kingstown High School students that weekend was freshman Ethan Utterback, who was awarded best soloist of the entire competition. 

Funny enough, the solo he performed on Saturday wasn’t initially meant for him, according to Muir. The song, which the chorus had already performed at its spring concert, had been performed by another student who was unable to attend the trip. Muir had picked Utterback to step up to the plate and fill the spot.

“A week before I asked Ethan, ‘Hey, can you pick up the slack and sing this solo for us?’ and he is always down for whatever I ask him,” Muir said. “He was great and we were blown away.”

This isn’t the first award Utterback has received, either. Earlier this year, Utterback also received an award for his performance at the Berklee Jazz Festival, according to Muir. 

“We’re really proud of Ethan and we’re looking forward to what he’s going to do down the road, because he’s got a few years ahead of him,” Benz said. 

In the future, Muir said he’d like to continue doing these types of trips for students, but in years to come it could be hindered due to current personnel cuts. In the fall, the district will be losing one full-time elementary music teacher, as well as a 0.40 music teacher at Curtis Corner Middle School.  

“You don’t get these types of trips and these types of results by cutting programs,” Muir said. “This doesn’t happen if you just start at the high school level. It’s gotta keep going from the elementary level all the way through.” 

In order to continue thriving in the arts, he said, South Kingstown Schools can’t be understaffing these departments. 

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