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Eliza Taylor Blake, director of bands at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, along with Interim Assistant Superintendent of Schools Melinda Stewart, Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Debra Harrison and Buckhannon-Upshur High School Principal Randolph West recognize and present Upshur Stars to band booster executive board members Tiffany Lee, Donna Gregory, Jennifer Dalton, Randy Caynor and Carrie Stark. Taylor Blake said the boosters helped make events successful and provided needed support for the band. / Photo by Beth Christian Broschart

First-ever female director details B-UHS band’s accolades, membership challenges; choir director highlights fine arts achievements

TENNERTON – The Buckhannon-Upshur High School Music and Fine Arts department has been extremely busy over the last two years, and director-educators Eliza Taylor Blake and Jeremiah Smallridge provided updates on the many accomplishments of their groups during the Nov. 15 Upshur County Board of Education meeting at Buckhannon-Upshur High School.

B-UHS Principal Randolph West introduced Taylor Blake and said the band hosted its first competition at the school on Oct. 22, 2022.

“It was a well-done event, and I know there was a lot of work that had to be done by her and some of the band boosters she wants to recognize,” West said.

Taylor Blake recognized the B-UHS Band Booster Executive Board members and presented them with Upshur Stars. Those included Tiffany Lee, Donna Gregory, Jennifer Dalton, Randy Caynor and Carrie Stark.

“That event (on Oct. 22, 2022) would have been impossible without them,” Taylor Blake said. “There is so much that goes into an event like that, including safety, concessions and creating packets for all of the bands. We had eight bands from across the state, of all different sizes, that came to the event – which is a very successful number for our first time. We are planning to do this again next year.”

She told the BOE members that she has been the director of bands at B-UHS for one full year.

“Today, we wanted to list some of the accomplishments and status of some of the ensembles because the arts — and especially the performing arts — have always been integral of Upshur County Schools,” she said. “There is a long lineage and history, and even though that history spans before World War II, I am only the ninth director of bands here at B-UHS. That proves that this is a great place to be.”

Taylor Blake said when she started last year, the band used to participate in the TOB – Tournament of Bands, which is a competition circuit that has completely pulled out of West Virginia.

“Last year, we were the 2021 TOB Regional champions,” she said. “We hosted our first B-U Family Christmas, which was an amalgamation of all performing arts, which included some fundraising. It was a very successful event, which will be happening again this year on Dec. 9, starting at 5 p.m.”

She said band students attended two Honor Bands – at West Virginia University and Marshall University – and included seven participants from the high school band.

“In the West Virginia All-State Band, we had one participant last year and two alternates,” Taylor-Blake said. “We have 18 students registered to audition for All-State Band this year on Dec. 3, 2022. We had one student receive a superior rating at the Solo and Ensemble Festival in 2022 in early winter. I am now the site coordinator, and B-UHS is the host site for the Regional Solo Ensemble Festival.”

Taylor Blake said the band was honored with a Master Class in 2022 with the President’s Own Marine Band.

“That is the band that plays at presidential inaugurations and a member of that band came and worked with the students,” she said. “We had a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, where the band played at the Grand Ole Opry on April 2, 2022. We received superior ratings at the 2022 Region Band Ratings, and we received funds for two brand new Jupiter 10 Sousaphones and a Pearl Drumline including five bass drums, three snares and one quad-tenor, fitted with new Evans drumheads, harnesses and stands.”

Another accomplishment of the band Taylor Blake shared was receiving first-place drum major and majorettes at the 80th Annual West Virginia Strawberry Festival and second overall in the band category.

“This year, we participated at the Fairmont Band Spectacular and University High Band Showcase,” she said. “At the Mountain State Forest Festival, we received for the Grand Feature Parade best auxiliary. In the Band Field Competition, we received first place band in our rank, and we were overall third place band, and overall, for field and parade, we were second runner-up.”

B-UHS Band participated in the Governor’s Cup Marching Competition.

“We hosted our own competition for the first time in recent history,” she said. “We decided to call it the Buccaneer Marching Band Festival, and we hosted eight bands who received points to the Governor’s Cup Competition Series. Awards we received include a second place overall, first place auxiliary and our drum majors always scored fractions of points away from first place.”

Taylor Blake said the B-UHS Drumline participated in Drums at the Capitol where students wrote their own drill and selected their own music.

“It was student-owned, student-created and I was very proud of that,” Taylor Blake shared. “For the second year in a row, we have a paid in-house assistant band director who is young, brings fresh ideas and perspective to the program, as well as bringing the potential for new ensembles and new performing arts opportunities in the future.”

Taylor Blake said she is the first woman director at B-UHS in the band’s history, and she is honored to serve in that position.

“To my knowledge, we are the only school system in the State of West Virginia to have an all-woman instrumental faculty,” Taylor Blake said. “We have had musical collaborations with local music professionals, including Dr. James Moore, the President of West Virginia Wesleyan College, Dr. Robert Palmer at West Virginia Wesleyan College and their former band director Scott Miller. We also work with other local musicians.”

She said there would be more opportunities to collaborate with local musicians thanks to Upshur County Schools Fine Arts Facilitator Jakob Spruce.

“The Jazz Band received an excellent rating during the 2022 Regionals, and we attended Jazz at the Capitol for the first time where we placed and received $1,750 in prize money,” she said. “We attended Kennywood Music in the Park in May, and we were first overall for our ensemble type and received an excellent rating.”

Taylor Blake said this is the second school year for the B-UHS Rock Band, which performed first at the B-U Family Christmas event in 2021.

“We are still growing that program,” she said. “We take musicians of all types.”

She said a continued challenge for the bands is enrollment.

“The band is currently standing at 68 members,” she said. “We also have issues with funding. Band is typically very expensive with repairs and upgrades. Our instrument inventory is as old as the program, and we are constantly looking for funding through things like grants.”

Smallridge said he directors orchestra, choir and theater at B-UHS.

“[The B-U] Soundwaves placed first at every competition they entered this year, and they received superior ratings at everything where there were ratings,” he said. “We created an outreach program with area churches — and that has been successful — where we provide holiday music for them.”

He said the Soundwaves went Christmas Caroling last year at local nursing homes, while the Choir acted as Ambassadors of Music for West Virginia at the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. last spring.

“Ella McNeish was named to the American Choral Directors All-National Choir, which is huge,” Smallridge shared. “Also, three students were just named to our state Chamber Ensemble, which only takes eight people per part, so it is very cutthroat.”

He said there are 75 members in choir, and the orchestra has doubled in size this year. The theater performed two shows last year and this year, and they are currently working on “School House Rocks.”

“I want to thank you all for your constant support for the arts,” Smallridge said.

BOE Vice President Jan Craig asked if there is a rotation system for the replacement of band instruments, and Taylor Blake said she is still working on inventory.

“We do have a lot, but the fleet needs a lot of repairs,” Taylor Blake said. “We are missing a lot of parts. There is not a current rotation, but we are working on a ‘Needs’ spreadsheet.”

BOE member Daya Wright asked Taylor Blake if she had a theory regarding why enrollment in the band is lower.

“I have concerns with middle school scheduling because I hear there are conflicts there,” Taylor Blake said. “I had a few families reach out last spring about enrolling in band starting in ninth grade instead of middle school. Of course, I will take new students in ninth grade, but there is a challenge when they have not played an instrument through middle school.”

“So, you think a challenge is the students at the middle school only have one elective choice and so not as many students are playing in the band as would if they had multiple choices?” Wright asked.

“I would agree with that,” Taylor Blake said. She added that, for next year, the expected number of band students coming to B-UHS from B-UMS is approximately 18, “but we will not get all 18 because their interests change.”

BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples said she was one of the adults who reached out with concerns about middle school electives keeping students from enrolling in band.

“My niece likes band, but she also wants to do agriculture,” Samples said. “It has been a fight, and it is problematic. I asked if she took lessons, would she be able to join band in ninth grade?”

Craig thanked Taylor Blake and Smallridge for the job they do with the students.

“It blows me away when I hear the Alma Mater and see the band; it is heart-warming,” Craig said.

“The support the arts receive in this community is outstanding, and I really appreciate it,” Taylor Blake said.

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