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A Legacy of Excellence: Boyd Orchestra and Cockrill Band Earn National Recognition (Again!)

Shane Mauldin|
Monday, October 9, 2017
  • McKinney Boyd High School Consortium Orchestra
  • Mike Link directs the McKinney Boyd High School Consortium Orchestra
  • McKinney Boyd High School Consortium Orchestra
  • Cockrill Middle School Honors Band
  • Cockrill Middle School Honors Band
  • Director Gary Williams and the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band
  • Cockrill Middle School Honors Band
  • Cockrill Middle School Honors Band

McKinney, Texas – McKinney ISD takes great pride in its fine arts program. The accolades that students and teachers have accumulated individually and collectively in band, orchestra, choir, theatre and visual arts over the course of MISD’s history could fill reams, and now, McKinney Boyd High School and Cockrill Middle School have earned two more major awards to contribute to that legacy.

The Boyd Consortium Orchestra and the Cockrill Honors Band have each been named National Winners in the Mark of Excellence by the Foundation for Music Education. It’s the first time that Boyd has entered the competition and the fifth time in about as many attempts that Cockrill has earned National Winner recognition.

According to the foundation’s website, the annual Mark of Excellence project seeks to recognize and award outstanding achievement in performance by high school and middle school bands, choirs and orchestras. The project gathers recorded entries from throughout the United States and provides feedback for the participants. Entrants who land among the top 25 percent earn the National Winner award, and the second 25 percent earn the status of Commended Winners.

“It is a great privilege to have the McKinney Boyd Consortium Orchestra and the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band recognized as 2017-18 National Winners by the Foundation for Music Education,” said Dr. Dan White, MISD director of fine arts. “This is certainly a great honor for the directors and students of these two outstanding ensembles.”

McKinney Boyd Consortium Orchestra — 2017 National Winner in the Mark of Excellence National Orchestra Honors

2017 marks the first time that the Boyd orchestra, led by Michael Link, has submitted an entry in the Mark of Excellence; however, it’s not the first time the program has earned national recognition. Three years ago, their Honors Chamber Orchestra performed at the prestigious Midwest Clinic and Conference in Chicago, which draws thousands of visitors from all over the world. They were one of only a handful of high school orchestras from across the country invited to do so.

This particular award, though, came as a pleasant surprise.

McKinney Boyd High School Consortium Orchestra

“Well, I was surprised because we didn’t actually know that [Mr. Link] applied for it, and he didn’t tell us at all,” said senior violinist Logan Compton with a smile. “It’s just like all of a sudden, he popped up and told us that we’d been recognized nationally for this award. It kind of came out of nowhere. It was like, ‘Oh, wow! That’s cool.’”

Junior violinist Abi Puhala had a similar reaction. “We did that [music] for UIL, so we didn’t even know we were entering this competition. We were just preparing UIL music,” she said. “Then we found out we were actually in this competition. I get this text from my mom…‘Hey, what’s this?!’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know,’” she said with a laugh.

But, Link had heard something special in his top orchestra’s UIL performance recordings. “Our UIL judges were so complimentary, and I listened to the recording, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really good!” he said.

The recordings sat on the shelf for the next six weeks, but when Link revisited them for another listen, he was convinced that he should submit them for the Mark of Excellence. “It had been in the back of my mind,” he said. “We had never submitted for this, ever, but if a group comes along, and I think it’s there, we’ll enter it.”

Link chose the two strongest pieces—Serenade for Strings, Op. 20 Mvt. 1 Allegro piacevole by Sir Edward Elgar and Romance in C Major, Op. 42 by Jean Sibelius—and sent them off.

The judges heard the same great qualities that Link had heard, and for this director who started the orchestra program at Boyd nine years ago, the feedback was a gratifying validation of his students’ hard work.

“We actually received verbal recordings from the two judges who are very prominent in the United States,” said Link. “Both are very well known in their field and highly respected, and they were very complimentary of our CD and made comments like, ‘This is such an awesome high school orchestra.’ They were just very complimentary. It’s nice to have validation that you’re giving your students the best education that you possibly can, and we’re just really, really lucky in McKinney ISD that we have administrators that support us and a school board that supports us. I do not take any of this for granted whatsoever.”

The students don’t seem to take it for granted either.

“It’s sort of an interesting experience because you work toward UIL, you submit your performance, you hear all the other shows in your region, and you’re kind of just like, ‘This is where we are. This is what we do,’ said Abi.

“But, you don’t really have a good perspective on how that compares to the rest of the nation,” she added. “So, when we found out how we did in this big competition, it was sort of this eye opening thing—and it kind of makes you feel really, really proud to be in this amazing orchestra setting where have just so many opportunities to really progress as a group.”

Cockrill Middle School Honors Band—National Winners in the Mark of Excellence National Wind Honors

This is not the first go around for the Cockrill Honors Band in the Mark of Excellence. As a matter of fact, 2017 marks the fifth time that they have earned the status of National Winner in just about as many years.

2016–2017 was a banner year for this group made up of Cockrill’s top seventh and eighth grade band students. Like the Boyd orchestra, they performed at the Midwest Clinic last December. They also qualified to performed in the TMEA State Honor Band competition this past summer and finished sixth in the state from among a field of Texas’ 16 best middle school bands. On top of all that, they earned the status of National Winner in the Mark of Excellence.

Williams in front of band pointing at student

Director Gary Williams and the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band

And, each time they accomplish these types of things, the accolades highlight the legacy of achievement that Director Gary Williams and his staff have cultivated among these students. The kids own it—and pass it on to the students who come along behind them.

“After Chicago at the Midwest Clinic, when we performed on that stage in December, the kids… you could see they had tears in their eyes,” said Williams. “They were excited. But, then I told them, ‘This is awesome. You’re never going to forget this for the rest of your life, but you need to understand something—We’re not done yet. We have more work to do.’

“And, they were nodding their heads, and they were excited. So, they understood as a tribute to the people that got us to Chicago, they needed to push for the next level so that the next grade level understands what it’s like to work for that,” he said.

They’ve done just that. The recorded pieces Williams submitted for the Mark of Excellence—Suite Provenзale by Jan Van der Roost and Symphonic Dance No. 3 “Fiesta” by Clifton Williams—were plucked from the band’s state performances. And, it was not material for lightweights.

“I turned two of those pieces in [to the Mark of Excellence], and those are true deal, Grade 4’s,” said Williams, explaining the 1–5 difficulty ratings assigned to musical pieces. “There are five grades that you can play from. High schools play Grade 5’s. When I was in middle school, we played Grade 1’s and tried to play a Grade 2 in terms of difficulty. So, the standard and the literature that our students are capable of playing is pretty remarkable.”

And, for these Cockrill band students, who can be found in the band hall before school and during lunch and after school working on their craft, all of this success has come to be a natural outworking of the culture they’ve created, and like their older peers at Boyd, they don’t take it for granted, either.

They know that Williams is going to be straightforward with them about their playing. At first, it can be tough to hear, but they come to realize that he, and their peers, are trying to help them get better. They come to understand that it’s part of working toward the same goal. They learn to appreciate it.

“You get used to the criticism,” said 8th grade flute player Kayley Barton. “It’s good feedback. Maybe at first, you’re kind of upset about it, but then you realize that once you put it all together and you work on these things and the criticism is put toward where you need it in your music, you realize it really makes you better.”

Fellow eighth grader and flutist Rylie Whisenant echoes Kayley. “I like it when Mr. Williams gives me feedback on how I play because I can always get better. It’s what makes us who we are as players.”

Under the wrong leadership, this relentless pursuit of excellence could breed resentment and competition among the band members, but Williams has pointed his musicians in the opposite direction.

Megan Benner is an 8th grade oboe player. “Our band is like a family, and it’s just the right balance of staying focused and determined and having some fun, having a few laughs. We really just have to work together, and a lot of it is just helping each other and supporting each other and not viewing each other as competition—but as inspiration,” Megan said.

These kids talk of building a legacy and bringing up the next group of seventh graders to take up the mantle and carry on the tradition.

“When the seventh graders come in,” said 8th grade saxophone player Micah Barker, “it’s like we can just raise them to be like us, how we were in seventh grade. We could just pass down a legacy, like [passing] the torch of how it was last year and just carry on the tradition of this band. It’s just a great experience.”

“This band…it’s one of those classes that you feel the most at home in,” added Kayley. “Everyone puts in work, and it’s about the individuals, but it’s also about just one big team because each individual has to play their own part in it. And, that will make up an entire team of great players. So, it’s just a family we have here.”

And, like a family, they pass down their traditions from one generation to the next.

And, this generation? They’re doing just fine.

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