By Josette Keelor
When 15-year-old Sophia Lederman, of Strasburg, checked online to see if she was on a list of students chosen for all-state band, she thought she hadn't made it.
She came in 43rd place in the clarinet section, her mother Elaine Lederman said, and Sophia thought the cutoff was 40. When she learned the band accepted 44 clarinet students, she said it was too late at night to tell anyone. Her mom was already asleep, so Sophia stayed up all night, too excited to sleep, and told her mom first thing in the morning: Sophia was going to all state.
It's enough that she'll represent herself and Strasburg High in an ensemble of Virginia's best, but that was only half the achievement, because Sophia is the first band student at Strasburg to make all state since the 1970s.
This weekend, the 10th grader will join other high school musicians from around the commonwealth for this year's All-VA Band & Orchestra Event at Harrisonburg High School in Harrisonburg.
Christopher Szuba, band director at Strasburg and at Signal Knob Middle School in Strasburg, said Sophia is one of his best students.
"I feel fantastic about it," he said. "It's a culmination of all her hard work."
"I'm really proud of her," he said.
Records from the school's band program are not complete throughout the '90s, but as far as Szuba knows, he said Sophia is the first band student to make all state since 1979.
Szuba said he's talked with Sophia's private teacher about her talent.
"Even when Sophia was an eighth grader, ... he and I have talked about her and we both hold up our hands about her because she is so self-motivated and self-driven," Szuba said.
The all state band and orchestra website at bandandorchestra.vboda.org also lists two students from Millbrook High and two from Sherando High, both in Frederick County, and one from Central High in Woodstock.
Warren County High School is sending four chorus students to the all state chorus, said chorus director Jamie Dean-Brackett.
Seniors Jasmain Ford, Jalissa Ford and Kelsey Hurley will join junior Ashley Jorgensen at the three-day event at Hanover High School in Mechanicsville, which ends with a performance on April 27.
"They're very motivated; they love chorus and they want to strive for us," Dean-Brackett said.
In District 14, Ashley received the top score of the soprano II singers and Kelsey received top score for alto I singers. The district covers Shenandoah, Warren, Fauquier, Frederick, Clarke and Rappahannock counties.
"The student I brought last year had the top score for alto 1," Dean-Brackett said.
Frederick County schools Millbrook High and James Wood High are sending 12 and five singers respectively, and Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal will send one, Dean-Brackett said.
"And that is a feat itself, because this is the first time that Randolph-Macon Academy has participated in this event," she said.
At the middle school level, sixth grader Alivia Shelton and seventh grader John-Robert Rimel from Peter Muhlenburg Middle School in Woodstock were the only two chorus students from Shenandoah County to make the All State Middle School Honor Choir, which also will perform on April 27 in Mechanicsville.
The middle school level doesn't have an all state band, Szuba said.
For chorus, students were required to sing a major scale, an a capella rendition of "My Country Tis of Thee" and a vocal solo of their choosing with accompaniment.
John-Robert, 12, chose "O Danny Boy" and credits chorus teacher Rebecca Cooper and student teacher Sonya Guerra, from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, with helping him earn a spot in the all state chorus.
On a day when Guerra was teaching, John-Robert said he was practicing "O Danny Boy."
"She probably gave me the best advice ever," he said. "I was kind of belting, and she said, 'Use your head voice,' and I think that made all the difference."
He had sung alto in the district chorus, but he never tried for all state before. After his acceptance, Cooper made him an audio disk of voice separations in his solo piece that he could use while practicing.
Her teaching transcends simple instructor demonstration and group repetition, John-Robert said.
"She teaches us actually how to read music," he said. "She's just supported us immensely."
Cooper said the competition to get into the honor choir is tough.
"There's so much competition this year, they were considering trying to do two choirs next year," she said. One would be for unchanged voices and one for voices changed through puberty, she said. Out of 753 auditions statewide, she said, 201 earned a spot in the choir. "It's getting harder and harder to get in."
Last year was the school's first try at all state, and Cooper said she had four students make it -- three eighth graders and a seventh grader.
"I've never had a sixth grader make it," she said. "I've never had a male make it, so a couple firsts this year."
Cooper said Alivia auditioned with "Amazing Grace," a song that has special meaning for the soprano I, who sang it at a funeral for a grandparent.
"She kind of dedicated her audition tryout to her grandparents, so I think that carried a lot of meaning for her," Cooper said.
Singing a well-known song like that was a risk, Cooper said, "But it didn't hurt her. She did really well."
Until this week, Sophia had not seen the music she's going to play for the high school concert this weekend. She and the other band students planned to get their music on Thursday at the first of three rehearsals.
"Definitely it's going to be a lot harder than what I'm used to," she said. She qualified to audition for all state by earning a spot in the all district band. Last year she made all district too, and this was her second year trying for all state. "All district is definitely harder than my band and what we play," she said.
Szuba said part of Sophia's audition included an etude, a piece of music that can range in various levels of difficulty and is designed to challenge students.
"You can always find an etude that will push you to your limit," he said.
At all state, "It's really tough stuff," he said. "When they get there, because of the level of kids who get to all state is so high, the music that they'll play is college- or professional-level music. It's something that they'd never get to play in high school."
"The music is so difficult, it takes very mature musicians to play," he said.
It's been six years since the last band student at Stonewall Jackson High School in Mt. Jackson made all state, said band director Robert Curry.
Two auditioned this year, he said, and he's had students audition every year since his first year there when he sent one student to all state.
He said students in this area of Virginia don't have the access to the private lessons that students from other areas do, limiting the musical education they can receive in the valley.
Cooper echoed his words.
"The big thing for me was to give these kids the opportunity to audition," she said. Since they don't normally have private voice teachers coaching them, Cooper said encouraging students to choose a solo and prepare for an audition falls to the school's choir director.
"It's very time consuming, but now that I've done it for two years, I don't think I could stop," she said.
It's not usual for schools to go as many years as Strasburg has without a student making all state. According to Szuba, the last chorus student to make all state was in 1985, but Szuba said the school's turnover rate of band directors has not helped the music program.
Since 1991, Szuba said, "There [have] been 11 directors in 10 years. That's a lot of instability for the program. For the past 10 years, with my predecessor Joel Hartshorn, he's been there for four years and I've been here for five."
Strasburg Assistant Principal Holly Rusher said, as a former band student herself during the '80s, she's seen students' declining interest in the band since then.
"And that's hard when you lose that continuity," she said. But under Szuba's direction, she's noticed a return of interest to the school's band program.
"This is only my second year here," she said, but "just as a community member, I could see the growth and I could see the improvement the last several years."
Because the school's records from the '90s are incomplete, Szuba has asked for the community's help filling in the gaps. He said he's relying on framed wall photos of previous all state participants to inform him of when the school last participated. The last one from the band was pictured in '79 and from the choir was '85.
"I would actually love to know that information," he said. "I would love to put together some sort of [musical] history of the school."
Lederman credits Szuba with helping her daughter grow her love for music while playing the clarinet over the past five years.
"Mr. Szuba, he works seven days a week," Lederman said. He directs the marching band on weekends and indoor drum line during the winter, for which Sophia plays bass drum. His wife Kristy volunteers as director of the color guard and indoor guard, Lederman said.
Sophia has been with the marching band since middle school, her mother said.
Making all state, Lederman said, "It's all her and Mr. Szuba. His encouragement in allowing her to participate as a middle schooler ... it really gives [students] that boost."
Sophia agreed, "We've got a great band director and I think our music program's going to get even stronger as time goes on."
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org