GUILFORD — In fifth grade, Clara Meyers chose the flute as her instrument when she entered Guilford’s band music program. Now a senior in high school, she found herself playing with the United States Coast Guard band in concert at Guilford High School as part of last week’s Guilford Performing Arts Festival.
“It’s an incredible feeling that you have the capability to play with those wonderful Coast Guard musicians,” Meyers said. “They have the ability to play difficult pieces with such ease. And they made us feel so welcome.”
“Their mastery leaves you speechless,” said Taig Egan, a junior who has been playing the clarinet for less than three years. “They do their craft so well it’s humbling and exciting. I actually had been playing the guitar, but I wanted to go on all the fun band trips. Now I want to go into music as a profession.”
But first there was an important rehearsal earlier in the week.
They straggled in, 55 GHS students with instruments and cases in hand, and took their places on stage.
Without chitchat or goofing off, the students immediately picked up their instruments, and the auditorium swelled with the cacophony of brass and reed wind instruments. Intently focused, they were warming up for a very special rehearsal and later a joint concert with the United States Coast Guard band.
Their usual director Mark Gahm, who has been with the district for 22 years, would soon hand over the baton to Jeffrey Spenner, the assistant director of the Coast Guard band based in New London. Spenner came to Guilford High School on Sept. 24 to rehearse the Guilford student musicians for the concert where they would sit next to Coast Guard band members in a concert that took place on Sunday, Sept. 29. The event was part of the week-long Guilford Performing Arts Festival that featured master classes by professionals with students, as well as some 70 events all over Guilford, last week.
For this master class, Chief Warrant Officer Spenner first took a seat in the audience and listened as Gahm lifted his baton and silenced the warmup. Then, he led the student musicians in a lively march. As previously arranged by the two directors, Gahm handed the baton over to Spenner, who began guiding the students.
“Marches are all about contrast. Sousa never conducted the same march the same way — he was always making changes. It’s all about the details and how your instrument supposed to sound in this particular piece,” he said.
“If there are 10 notes in this phrase, how do you get there and get back on this musical journey?” He asked one section to repeat a phrase, “at five, please,” he said.
“It’s the idea of ensemble playing — of many becoming one,” he said.
It was last spring when high school director Gahm learned of the joint band concert with his students playing with the Coast Guard band. He and Spenner chose a piece that was given to the Guilford students to practice over the summer.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to showcase our Guilford High School band and a great experience to play with the Coast Guard musicians,” Gahm said. The concert brought together over 100 adult and student musicians.
Spenner agrees. “I love to do these master classes. I remember participating in these when I was a student. The more exposure kids can have to professionals, the better they become. The U.S. Coast Guard band members have graduated from the top music schools in the nation and also teach at Connecticut colleges as well as privately. These classes are such a valuable experience for our Coast Guard musicians. It reinvigorates our band. The students give us fresh energy.”