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Bands tour creates experiences for high school composer

| Jenna Erickson, Music LA and Communications Major

This spring, both of our Music and Theatre Arts Department concert band ensembles went on their annual spring semester tour for recruitment outreach - expanding to regional Wisconsin and Minnesota schools. But, this tour presented a new, unique experience for our UW- Eau Claire Symphony band specifically, as a high school student named Allision Ssali (she/her), a senior and avid-music lover from Menomonee Falls High School, was given the opportunity to not only conduct, but a record a piece of her very own, commissioned by our UW-Eau Claire Symphony Band. 

The University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Symphony band visited MFHS during their tour, and Mr. Hardt, the band director at MFHS mentioned to Ssali that she would be conducting a piece she wrote over the summer. 

“The piece, titled Variations of a Theme on the Ornament Express, is about my interpretation of December and the double meaning of “ornaments” in a music sense and holiday sense. Dr. O wanted the Symphony Band to play it and have me conduct it, and I had the dopiest smile after Mr. Hardt told me the news. I got to watch Dr. O conduct and a few minutes later, I got to conduct the band. At first it was nerve wracking trying to multitask between looking at the sheet music and trying to give cues, but then it started to feel more natural. As an introverted person, the scariest part was having all eyes on me.” 

Caroline Gates (she/her), a freshman majoring in Instrumental Music Education, plays saxophone in the Symphony Band and speaks on her reaction to this wonderful experience.

“She was clearly very passionate about conducting, and we could all tell that she was so grateful to be here. She was confident and animated and knew how to run a band rehearsal with control and ease. It didn't seem like her first rodeo!”

On top of this unique experience on tour, Ssali was asked to be hosted by Dr. Ostrander, conductor of Symphony Band, then come to Eau Claire to professionally record the piece in the Pablo Center recording studio. 

“On May 4, my father and two close friends drove me to Eau Claire and we got to meet up with Mr. Hardt and Dr. O. We toured the music hall for a little bit and then it was time for the band to rehearse my piece. When the tuning pitches were played, I was thinking this is really happening, something that I dreamed of is becoming a reality.”

Ssali started playing the clarinet in 7th grade and has remained her main instrument with the addition of the flute and bass clarinet. 

“The recording session ran for about an hour and half, and each time we listened to the recording, the group and I took individual notes. The amount of positive feedback from both parties was phenomenal. A few students even gave me ideas for my next composition. I’ve never conducted in front of a group like that before, especially college students but they were super welcoming the entire time.”

Ssali will be attending St. Norbert College with the intention of majoring in biology and minoring in music performance. 

Gates states, “I learned that it is so important to challenge students and provide them with resources and opportunities to make their goals achievable. Her band director could have just said "Wow, it's great that you're getting into composition!" as opposed to "Let's work on this piece as a band and then see if we can set something up with UWEC to see if you can have some recording and conducting experience."