–An Interview with Claudia Schmitz and Phoom Punpeng–  

The Association for Music in International Schools, or AMIS for short, hosted the “Asian Middle School Honor Band” at the Shanghai American School (Pudong Campus) on January 23–27, 2019. This was one of 17 events organized by AMIS for the 2018–2019 school year and the 20th annual AMIS Middle School Honor Band Festival—the first was held at The American School in Paris in 1999.

The purpose of this honor band is to gather talented band instrumentalists in grades 7 and 8 to give them the opportunity to work together as a concert band with guest conductors from within the international community. Places in the band are determined by auditions that are judged “blindly” (no name or other identifying information is attached to the audio recording) by international school band teachers who are members of AMIS.

The guest conductor this year was Sophie Holbrook, originally from Palo Alto, California, and currently the Band Director for grades 5–8 at Seoul Foreign School in South Korea. Ms. Holbrook studied trumpet performance at San Francisco Conservatory and holds degrees in music education from Rutgers University and Boston University.

Seventh-grade trombonist Phoom Punpeng was the only RIS student to make it into this elite ensemble. This is a remarkable achievement for any student, but it’s even more impressive since Phoom is only in 7th grade and this is just his second year of playing the trombone. Phoom is a member of the RIS Middle School Band and also performs with the RIS Jazz Ensemble, which is primarily a high school ensemble.

I spoke with both Ms. Claudia and Phoom to hear more about this wonderful experience from each of their perspectives.  

Ms. Claudia

How did this experience come about for Phoom?

Being an international school teacher, I knew about AMIS and its honor bands and festivals. I mentioned this particular honor band to my students, both last year and this year. A couple of band members auditioned and Phoom was selected. A total of about 80 band members from 14 different schools were selected perform in this Honor Band in China, the vast majority of whom are 8th graders. So it was a great achievement that Phoom was selected.

Tell me more about the Asian Middle School Honor Band Festival and the purpose of it.

The festival is a celebration of music and gives the selected musicians the opportunity to play in an advanced ensemble. Most of the students in this band are used to being some of the leading players in their school band; this gives these hard-working music students a chance to experience an additional challenge. They also get to perform more difficult music in a larger band than they may be used to playing in. Phoom is usually in a class of 12, which combines to an advanced band of about 30 for our end-of-semester performances.

How does the committee choose who gets to play in the Honor Band? I imagine a lot of talented players audition.

I haven’t served on an audition listening committee before but I know that a successful audition needs to be very strong. There are only a certain number of spots for various instruments, there’s a goal of instrumentation they’re aiming for, but only the top players are selected so you need to be at a certain level. For example, this year there were no bassoon players in the group and only two French horn players but there were nine flutists. More students typically choose to play the flute, so a student could be an incredible flute player but his or her chance of being selected for the band would have depended on the number of other flute players who auditioned.  

As a band teacher—and a musician yourself—what did this experience mean to you?

Although this was not officially considered professional development, I learned so much from simply being there and getting to talk with other band teachers and directors from around Asia. It was so beneficial for me to be around a group of teachers, all excellent musicians and educators, who really know how to communicate with middle schoolers. In particular, I loved watching Ms. Holbrook work and rehearse with the kids. I also got to talk with the student musicians about high-level trombone-specific challenges, which was a good experience for me as a trombone player myself and for the students for them to learn more details about their instrument.

Tell me more about the festival itself, what did Phoom get to do there?

The students got to work in small groups and all together to learn several pieces of music that they would perform during two concerts. One concert was during the day for the ES and MS students who attended Shanghai American School (the Pudong campus). The other was a Gala Concert, which took place in the school’s Performing Arts Center during the evening and was live streamed. A recording is available on YouTube: bit.ly/2NsPY8V

While there, Phoom also auditioned for and was selected to perform a short solo during one of the concerts. About three-quarters of the ensemble auditioned for these short solos for each of the instruments. There were a total of 6 trombones and 2 were selected. Phoom had to play in front of the whole band. I was very proud of him for doing that.

The musicians also had skype conversations with two of the composers of pieces they performed.

What was the thinking behind talking with the composers?

It gave the students a chance to ask questions directly. Some examples were “Why did you pick this piece?” “Why did you choose the key signature?” “Why did you choose that name for the piece?” “Why did the composer write certain parts they way he did?” One composer even shared a video of himself singing an early draft of the piece.

What do you see as the value of this experience for Phoom and other band members?

Phoom has learned so much by being around other young excited student musicians. I hear a difference in his playing. I’ve noticed that he has a bigger, fuller sound and has started attempting more challenging things, like higher notes. This also makes him a good model for other students.

Taking part in something like this is good motivation; it gives students a tangible reason to practice and the drive to get better than they already are. External motivation is always helpful! It gives us a reason to achieve. Musicians need to work on specific skills, but we typically want to play the things we’re already good at and avoid the harder things that aren’t as much fun to play—it’s just human nature. But we only get better when we spend time working on the things that we need to get better at. Opportunities like this provide the motivation students need to dig in to the things they might otherwise shy away from.

Phoom

What was the audition process like?

I was given a couple of pieces to play—a scale and two études (short musical compositions). I did most of the practicing at home but recorded the audition at school with Ms. Claudia. I was a little bit nervous at first, but after the audition was over I felt relieved and was curious to know the results. I was very excited to know I made it into the Honor Band.  

You were the only student from RIS to go to the festival, did you get to know kids from other schools while you were there?

Yes, I made friends with a boy named Henry, an 8th grader from Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) who came to play the flute. He was also the only kid from his school. We were both staying at the same homestay. I met some of the students from ISB (Bangkok), there were about 20 of them and they were very friendly. I also met some students from SAS (the host school) who were very welcoming as well.

What did you think of staying with a family from the school, as a homestay?

It was a really good experience. I learned about Chinese culture, including what they do at home and what food they eat. The family taught me what to say for Chinese New Year and advised me what I should do at the dining table, which is not the same as in Thai culture.

What did you think of the guest conductor?

She made it really fun. She showed us some activities that helped us breathe more smoothly while playing, which made all the musicians sound better. She also encouraged us to ask her any questions. She can play every instrument in the band and so was able to support each musician.

Which were your favorite songs that you performed?

The guest conductor chose the music, and all the songs were based on theme of light. My favorites were “Luminescence” (because it was fun to play) and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story. We also played “Chasing Sunlight,” “Looking at the Stars,” “March Militaire,” and “Earth Dance.”

What did you learn about being in band that you didn't know before this experience?

I learned that we have to be aware of everything around us: the conductor, our friends, the audience…. All of it. Also that musicians need to make adjustments as we play without being told.

Will you audition again next year?

Yes, for sure!

Ms. Claudia tells me that the song you played the solo on was a very “different” piece that included “neon plastic whirlies.” Tell me more about that!

Yes, the whirlies make a distinctive sound. The song was called “Whirlwind.” Everyone in the band played 5 notes in a repeating pattern. When the conductor asked who wanted to do a solo, I volunteered. I had to audition on the spot, in front of the rest of the band. The first 2–3 notes were a bit shaky because I was nervous, but then my confidence grew and I was able to finish the audition and was chosen to do the solo.

How do think Ms. Claudia prepared you for this experience?

Since I joined band at the beginning of middle school, it’s been easy for me to be on the stage and not be scared. Also, every Christmas and end of the school year we have one concert, so I felt prepared for this event. For the trombones, Ms. Claudia gave us some techniques that made us sound better, one of those is the habit of sitting up tall.  

Do you want to share anything else about the festival?

I was grateful to get to play in the band. The overall experience was thrilling as I got to work with other musicians who are at different levels. It was very exciting to meet new friends and learn about the Chinese culture.

How often do you practice?

I practice almost every day, for about 30–60 minutes all together. I really wanted to play the trombone, so I was determined to be good at it.

What other instruments do you play?

I also play the piano and I’d like to try a new instrument, a woodwind instrument, maybe the flute or the oboe.

How long have you been playing the piano?

Since I was 4 years old. I just reached Grade 7.*

* After this interview, I learned—quite by chance—that Phoom didn’t just “reach Grade 7,” he actually earned the highest score—96/100—in Thailand for the Trinity Piano Grade 7 Exam 2018. There is a ceremony in Bangkok in early March to acknowledge “the three highest scorers in each grade.” As if that weren’t enough, I also found out that Phoom recently took part in the 5th Trinity College London National Youth Piano Competition, Thailand 2018. Actually, he didn’t merely take part in it, he won 1st place and Best Compulsory Piece in Category III (under 16 years old), along with prize money totalling 35,000 baht!

Congratulations on your many successes, Phoom! Moving forward, I suspect we’ll be hearing quite a bit more about your musical talents.