Harrisites earn multiple seats in NYC Honors Music Festival

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The New York City High School Honors Festival is a selective two-day annual music event that selects students from public, private, and charter schools to rehearse and prepare for a concert performance. For this year’s upcoming eighth annual festival, 15 Harrisites were chosen to participate in modern band, orchestra, symphonic band, jazz ensemble, and chorus. 

The music festival is a new step for the music program at Townsend Harris. “[Harrisites will] want to strive to be the greatest and be in the festival,” music teacher and band director Kevin Heathwood said. “We now have a serious arts program at Townsend. Students can come to THHS for the high academic rigor and be able to play music at a high level. It’s the beginning of a new era.”

Sponsored by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and Music Educators’ Association of New York City (MEANYC), the festival divides students into different music groups, including modern band, string orchestra, symphonic band, chorus, and jazz ensemble. This year’s participants were nominated by Mr. Heathwood and selected by the honors festival committee board. The program also features other musically talented students across NYC high schools who were nominated by their teachers. 

The festival will be conducted by Marlon Daniel, director of the orchestra ensemble at Fordham University, Ray Vega, senior lecturer and conductor for jazz and trumpet at The University of Vermont, Charles McGuire, professor of musicology at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and Bryan Powell, assistant professor of music education and music technology at Montclair State University. 

For the modern band section, applicants were required to submit their own auditions to the music festival committee instead of being selected by Mr. Heathwood. Junior Darian Jimenez and senior William Rhee (who is also a Classic editor) were chosen with 10 other students to represent this newly added section in the festival. 

William spoke on his experience, and said, “I think the music festival is a great opportunity for me not only as a stress reliever, but also as a way to meet and jam with other talented high school students beyond the Townsend community.” Darian said, “I’ve always found the bass really interesting… Between school and other commitments it’s easy to let my passion for music fade, but I’ve been doing my best to keep up with practicing.”

Sophomore Nicolas Lin, juniors Joyce Ke and Lana Yepifanova, and seniors Nathan Lin and Amelia Harrington were chosen to participate in the orchestra section along with over 50 other students from across the city. Lana said, “The sheet music was harder than expected…[but] it is a nice opportunity to play with other musicians.” Nathan agreed, saying, “I’m excited to see what it’s like performing in one ensemble with such a diverse group, and I can’t wait to see how the final performance goes.”

Nicolas acknowledged that being a musician requires long and arduous work, and said, “The daily grind of practicing several hours a day, monotonously playing the same parts over and over again, is a constant struggle. What people see when I perform is just a few minutes. What they don’t see is the hundreds, even thousands of hours that I spend on each individual piece of music.” 

Even with this extensive practice, Nicolas said it is worth it: “Performing well and entertaining the audience is always enjoyable. I love creating music with people that are just as invested into it as I am, and the feeling of being proud of something you’ve worked extremely hard on with other people is one of the best feelings in the world… The reward of performing and sharing your work with other people more than justifies [the struggles],” he said. 

The symphonic band features sophomores Kaylah Rouzier and Ann Hsieh, junior Rebecca Ortiz, and seniors Alyse Sayed, Matthew Babayev, and Aviv Fetaya. This year’s Symphonic Band is composed of 65 students. For seniors such as Matthew Babayev, the festival is especially rewarding as it is their final year at THHS. Matthew said, “[As a senior] I get to actualize my work in an honors festival with other Townsend musicians. Playing French horn for the past four years with Mr. Heathwood has really been an amazing experience, and I have his classes to thank for my continued interest in music.”

Likewise, Ann is excited to learn from the other high school musicians. She said, “It’s extremely rewarding because when I’m onstage in a big group, I’m not as nervous, and when we play well, it feels like I’m able to almost stare down the audience, which is a lot of fun for me.”

Juniors Justin Huang and Jeremy Diaz were chosen for the jazz ensemble. For Justin, the opportunity to attend the festival is a huge honor as he was invited in 2020, but unable to perform after the festival was canceled due to the pandemic. “​​This is a huge first for me. This is an opportunity to play with the best kids in the city, and I don’t doubt that the experience is going to be a lot different than just playing in our school band,” he said.

Senior Lynda Irizarry will be the only Harrisite performing with the chorus in the festival. She hopes that the unprecedented number of participants from THHS in the program can highlight the importance of the arts. Lynda said, “This is the first time that THHS is sending [many] students to the honors festival… this year starts a tradition that will put our school on the musical map. I really hope that our participation in this festival will help raise more funds for our arts programs because I think that they are so important for kids who are trying to find themselves, whether it be through music or other arts.”

Photo courtesy of Kevin Heathwood