They might be middle school students, but the McMath Middle School Tiger Jazz Band keeps landing honors.

The Texas Music Educators Association selected the McMath musicians as the top middle school jazz ensemble in the state. The group will perform at the association’s 2019 convention, which will be Feb. 13-16, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio.

“It all comes down to relationships,” said Travis Harris, the director of the Tiger Jazz Band. “We don’t critique without offering providing solutions, and we see that they listen to great music as part of the classroom instruction. But it all comes down to relationships, and that’s how we get what we do out of the students.”

The middle school band competition is different from the usual Texas State Honor Band contest. All classifications of middle schools compete in a single contest instead of being grouped according to school size.

The contest is decided by a five-judge panel that listens to the recordings the schools submit. Then, the panel votes. The McMath Tiger Jazz Band placed first out of all competing middle schools in Texas.

McMath submitted recordings from live competitions in the Denton High School Auditorium.

“Mr. [Brian] Wilson, Mr. [Jesse] Woolery and Mr. [Phillip] Elder did a fantastic job providing these opportunities for us and many other groups,” Harris said. “I’m happy that my kids will be part of [the Pride of Bronco Country] one day.”

The band played and recorded four songs that featured the full ensemble as well as several improvised solos. Soloists were Lily Fosmire on tenor sax and clarinet, Gerald Jones on flugelhorn, Travis Harris III on trombone and Josiah Panter on the drum set, all of whom received numerous outstanding soloist awards.

The middle school band has a decorated history with contests. In the last nine years, the Tiger Jazz band has won every live performance competition for its classification, Harris said. Tiger Jazz has also competed at the high school level. The ensemble won the entire festival at the Oklahoma Baptist University Bison Jazz Festival, where they placed higher than the top-ranked high school jazz bands in Oklahoma. Tiger Jazz has never received anything less than a first division rating from any judge, and the group has won awards above its classification and is a two-time national champion through the Mark of Excellence Competition.

“Am I surprised that they could do it and get picked to play the TMEA conference next year? No,” Harris said. “Was I impressed with the level they’re playing at? Yes.”

Kelsey Gaskill, the associate director of bands at McMath, said she gets to watch the musicians grow, both in technique and musicality.

“I get to work with the beginners a lot, but I step out on occasion and get to hear them after they’ve moved up. I’ll be like, ‘I heard you four months ago and you’ve gotten so much better,’” Gaskill said.

Harris said he and Gaskill expose their students to great jazz musicians.

“There’s no way a band can swing without listening to Basie. There’s no way they can get funky without hearing the Gap Band, and there’s no way they can get into Latin jazz without hearing [Tito] Puente,” Harris said. “We make sure they listen to all the greats.”

About 18 students studied in the jazz band program in the 2017-18 school year, and Gaskill said the musicians are mature — they practice, and they show up ready to work.

“Our job is to supply an environment where it’s OK to fold,” Harris said. “When that happens, we laugh, have some high-fives and then try again.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

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