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McPherson College Band Works With Composer for KMEA Concert

McPherson College Concert Band

It is a big moment for the McPherson College band.

The band will perform at the Kansas Music Educators Association (KMEA) state convention on Feb. 27 at Century II in Wichita. This is the second time in the past three years that KMEA has selected the band to perform.

Kyle Hopkins, director of bands and associate professor of music, says being selected to play at the convention that hosts thousands of musicians and music educators from the across the state is always an honor, but it is remarkable for a band consisting primarily of non-music majors to be selected twice in such a short time.

“I am proud of what we have built in our band program with mostly non-majors. It’s always been my mission to make music a part of my students’ lives regardless of their majors,” he said. “It’s really unheard of that a band from a small college like ours is selected to perform twice in three years.”

The performance is special for another reason as well. The band will perform an original piece of music composed exclusively for it by Meri Jenkins, a musician from Wichita. Jenkins has a degree in music performance from the University of North Carolina and studied composition there. She writes chamber music for the quintet Intrepid Brass and performs with the Wichita fusion jazz and funk band, Daydream. This is the first time she has written for a full band.

“This is a really big deal,” Jenkins said. “I hope it is the beginning of a career. It’s both exciting and terrifying to think about it being performed to such a big audience and one that is so musically oriented. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that people like it and want more.”

Performing new music is not unusual for a band and is an important part of the band experience, Hopkins explained. It is common for bands to form consortiums and commission new works. However, the McPherson College band took this practice a step further and worked one-on-one with a new composer to create a new work written specifically for the band.

“This was a really a unique experience for all of us,” Hopkins said. “We were able to meet so many times and have great interaction with the composer. The students loved being part of the process. If they had their way, all we would play is Meri’s piece.”

The work titled, “The Sisu Within You,” refers to a Finnish construct that means discovering extraordinary courage, determination, perseverance, and dignity after reaching the end of physical, emotional, and psychological endurance like a “second wind” of inner strength. Jenkins said titles for her compositions usually come at the end of her writing process but that was not the case this time.

“I like to name my pieces with words that don’t translate easily to English but describe complex feelings,” she said. “This one came to me before I was finished. This was a very big undertaking and I was questioning if I could finish. It was how I felt when I was writing this. I had to find that within myself.”

Both Jenkins and Hopkins play horn and perform with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Wichita Grand Opera. Jenkins has a master’s degree in horn performance from Wichita State University and when Hopkins learned she also composed, he proposed that she create a piece for his concert band.

“It was a leap of faith for both of us,” Hopkins said. “It was a huge risk for her because she had never composed for a full band, and it was a gamble for me placing my faith in such a new composer.”

According to Hopkins, the gamble paid off. Because Jenkins spent so much time getting to know the band, she was able to write music that featured individual musicians and highlighted the strengths of the ensemble. She also incorporated thematic suggestions made by the students.

“Trying to find ways to create community within the band can be challenging,” Hopkins said. “We are all together only about three hours a week so having time for something that is unique and binding isn’t easy. The creative process with Meri was very much a community-building activity. It gave us a sense of us.”

Jenkins agreed that composers do not often get an opportunity to work closely with the performers and she appreciated all the time she was able to spend with the students.

“Being able to break through the barrier between composer and performer really inspired me,” she said. “Getting to hear the excitement of the students is what fueled me. Kyle believed in me as a new composer and now it’s my turn to believe in them to perform my piece. I am very proud of all the students and how they embraced my work.”

The band debuted the new work at its fall concert in November. Since then, Jenkins and the band have reworked much of the arrangement. There will be one other opportunity for audiences to hear the piece this year when the band performs it on March 8 at McPherson College during a collaborative concert with Hutchinson Community College.