The definition of bravery is knowing rejection is the most likely outcome, but you do it anyway.
Russell High School’s Percussion Ensemble did just that when it auditioned for a spot on the All-State team to perform at the Kentucky Music Educators Association Professional Development Conference.
The Red Devils’ ensemble is one of three to four groups selected to perform at the conference in February out of all the schools in Kentucky.
Russell Band Director Levi Dalton said while previous area teams (including Boyd County, Russell Middle School and Ashland Blazer) had participated, it’s a selective process and not many teams make it.
The ensemble will join with other selected bands, orchestras and chorus groups to perform before the conference.
Dalton said his ensemble is young, mostly comprised of underclassmen, and he was up front when he told them it could be risky.
“It’s a risk because it comes with rejection,” Dalton recalled telling his students.
Creating a ballot, Dalton gauged his students’ interest in trying out and, sure enough, they weren’t at all swayed by the possibility of being turned away.
“We could be told no, but that’s part of growing and doing better,” Dalton said.
“Some of them started in sixth grade; some didn’t start until high school. But they’re very driven,” Dalton said of his percussionist students, adding he knew they were good enough to do it.
Comprised of 11 students, the ensemble wished to proceed. It allowed Dalton to push them even further, creating results.
“My expectations are always the best, but it’s a different level,” Dalton said of preparing for the conference audition.
Dalton said he told his students that while they’re privileged at Russell with equipment and support, they’d be going up against storied programs in larger cities like Lexington, Richmond or Louisville.
For an example of school support, Dalton recalled sitting down with Principal David Caniff to arrange a schedule so he could have an entire class period to specifically teach percussion and it was granted.
Dalton said he submitted eight minutes of a previous spring concert to the selection committee in May and received the good news on Aug 2.
Dalton said the students found out during a marching band practice and were “elated.”
For the spring concert, Dalton said he selected three pieces that allowed the percussion instruments to shine.
“You think percussion is just loud, like at a football game,” Dalton said, adding in the concert pieces the students were challenged to approach their instruments differently allowing them to “think like a singer or a different instrument player,” Dalton said.
The submitted pieces exhibited intense sounds comprised of multiple percussion instruments from bass drums to keyboards to small bongos to wooden blocks.
Dalton said the concert displayed students knowing their roles in a piece and providing “the most color to the sound,” resulting in their rare and prestigious selection.
With percussion instruments consisting of anything you shake, strike or scrape — Dalton said he wanted his students to be well-versed.
“I try to teach them to be well-rounded,” Dalton said. Even when some students prefer a keyboard or a snare, he reminds them: “You’re not a drummer or a keyboardist, you’re a percussionist.”
That different school of thought, Dalton said, forces students into what they think they’re not good at — only to see them excel later.
“Percussion is something like any other skill, I’ve seen it. If they stick with it, they’ve always figured it out. I’ve only taught two or three that had an absolute gift,” Dalton said.
As the students prepare to be given their performance music at the start of the school year, Dalton wanted to be sure to emphasize the importance school support has played into the ensemble’s success.
“Anybody from the superintendent to board members, to the bus drivers that take us places, they all treat us very well,” Dalton said. “It’s a huge honor.”
The ensemble to perform at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom in downtown Louisville on Feb. 9, 2024, are Tucker Marshall, Heaven Wheeler, Zach Mings, Wyatt Hayes, Ellie Wehrle, Chris Drake, Waylon Clark, Grace Russell, Isaiah Freeman, Kaycee Jackson, Kayla Dalton and Gabe Chappler.
Students who have since graduated or moved away but played a vital role in the school’s selection are Makenzie Tinkler, Sam Robinette, Cori McClanahan, Nic Bond, Tommy Angle and David Moore.