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A celebration of music

More than 1,000 Pinellas students sing and play selections from 12 countries at the sixth annual MusicFest.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The lights had come up and the audience had started to file out of the Times Arena at Bayfront Center Wednesday night when a burst of sound erupted from a corner of the arena floor.

James Alderman, 16, a percussionist with the All-County Jazz Band, said the encore wasn't planned. The band just wasn't ready to stop playing.

The audience wasn't ready to stop listening, either. People paused. Many turned back. Some sat down again or stood and swayed to the irresistible rhythm of Manteca, an example of Latin American mambo jazz.

"That tune is so alive," Alderman said. "It has a catchy beat. As soon as you hear that tune, you just want to dance."

The All-County Jazz Band was one of six groups that appeared at MusicFest, an annual performance featuring the best music and choral students in Pinellas County schools. The band's spontaneous coda was appropriate for a show that alternately moved the audience to sighs and cheers.

Students from nearly every school in the county were divided into elementary, middle and high school choruses, a middle school band, a high school band and the jazz band. The Scottish Highlander Pipe Band from Dunedin High and the Dunedin Highland Middle School Pipe Band also performed, along with the Second Time Arounders, a group of 500 former Tampa Bay areahigh school and college band members.

They played and sang selections from a dozen countries, including England, Ireland, France, Israel, Mexico and the United States, to complement this year's theme, "Celebrate Music Hand in Hand."

MusicFest director and producer Joey Miazga, choral director at Seminole Middle School, said she chose the theme to give music teachers a wide range of music to work with.

"I was trying to find a theme that wouldn't limit the music," she said. "I wanted to give music teachers an open door. Music from countries seemed to do that."

But she also chose the theme because she likes the image of children joining hands around the world. When children "speak music," she said, they speak the same language.

A combined effort of the school district and the Festival of States, MusicFest started five years ago. Malcolm King, former festival executive director, came to then-county music supervisor Frank Biringer and said the festival wanted to do something to promote music in the schools. They talked about creating a show that would display the talents of Pinellas County children.

The Festival of States agreed to underwrite the cost for the performance -- approximately $35,000 this year -- with the hope it would recoup the money in ticket sales.

"The music supervisor knew I was very show-oriented," Miazga said. "They came to me to ask me to produce this all-county thing."

Miazga has produced and directed MusicFest ever since.

"It's a wonderful way to display what students have accomplished in Pinellas County through music," she said. "It brings north and south county together in one massive venue and enables the kids to meet students from other schools."

She said MusicFest is a huge undertaking. Planning starts in August, and she begins monthly meetings with festival staff in the fall. Chorus teachers begin auditioning their students and cross-county band auditions are held in a central location.

This year, about 500 students were chosen for the elementary chorus, 315 for the middle school chorus and 105 for the high school chorus. Approximately 100 landed spots with the middle school band, 80 were chosen for the high school band and 25 won chairs with the high school jazz band.

After the students were selected, they began rehearsals at their schools. They met four times to rehearse with their counterparts from other schools and then came together en masse for a dress rehearsal the night before MusicFest.

"It's just hundreds and hundreds of hours," Miazga said. "It's nights, it's weekends, an hour here and there."

But she said it is the combined efforts of many people that make the performance a success, including the students themselves.

"Here are 1,500 to 1,600 kids that don't have anything to do with violence," she said. "On a Tuesday and Wednesday night, they're in that arena doing wonderful things."

Miazga credited pre-K through 12th-grade music and theater supervisor Jeanne Reynolds for raising the quality of the production in recent years. Reynolds helps coordinate 130 schools, navigating diverse personalities to create what she calls a "smorgasbord" of music in public and private schools.

"We can't do everything that night, but we try to give bits and pieces and involve children from all schools in the activity," Reynolds said. "It gives them a chance to spread their wings, and it does the same thing for the community."

Miazga said the letters and e-mails that pour into her office the week after MusicFest encourage her to keep producing the show year after year. But she said it's the students who give her the biggest reward.

"A lot of times, kids just knock at my door. They come back and tell me what music has done for them," she said. "It's a boost to know it was all worth it."

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