Brunswick’s Honors Wind Ensemble performs in spring 2021. The group was named a semifinalist for The American Prize: Ernst Beacon Memorial Award for Performance of American Music. Contributed / Brunswick High School Music Department

Anyone who has stepped into a high school band room knows that wind instruments don’t fit neatly into a global pandemic. How can bands, defined by blasts of hot breath and leaking spit valves, practice safely in a world dominated by an airborne disease?

For nearly two years, the members of Brunswick High School’s Honors Wind Ensemble have found creative ways to make music, from remote practices to outdoor rehearsals to masked, socially distanced performances. Now, in spite the obstacles they’ve faced, the group has earned national recognition as a semifinalist for The American Prize: Ernst Beacon Memorial Award for Performance of American Music.

“They really are a talented group of musicians,” Band Director Brandon Duras said of the ensemble, which is made up of the top 40-45 members of Brunswick’s main concert band. “Sometimes I don’t think they realize how good they are.”

Brandon Duras conducts at a small performance in spring 2021 at Brunswick High School. Contributed / Brunswick High School Music Department

On Jan. 20, the nonprofit American Prize announced Brunswick was one of three semifinalists in the award’s school ensemble division. Finalists and winners of the award, which is given on the basis of “artistic quality,” will be named in the coming months.

“We put in so much work, and Mr. Duras put in so much work,” said junior Hannah Wilkoff, who plays percussion and piano. “It’s really nice to feel that it all paid off.”

Brunswick’s music department, which also features two jazz bands and three choirs, has a history of excellence. In 2019, the National Association of Music Merchants named the town one of the nation’s best communities for music education.


The program’s success should delight parents, as music training has been linked to higher attainment in math and science by the American Psychological Association.

Yet since March 2020, Duras and his tight-knit group of students have needed to adapt in order to perform, he said.

That spring, the group, working from home, recorded their parts individually and submitted them to Duras. An external company helped compile the segments into a single audio file, which played during a virtual spring concert.

Fall 2020 offered students the chance to play together, but strict state guidelines kept things far from business as usual, according to Duras.

“We were outside, 14 feet away from each other in a tent in the back parking lot,” he said. “They still showed up, 7 a.m., before the sun had risen, in a tent with wind chill and sometimes rain or fog.”

The group played outdoors until Thanksgiving, Duras said. After the new year, they were finally able to play indoors, but only while masked and separated, first by 10 feet, and then by 6.


“It’s not fun,” senior trumpeter and pianist Nolan Marblestone said of playing with a mask. “But I was really glad that we had them, because it gave us a way to play inside, and I did feel pretty safe.”

The ensemble met daily at 7 a.m. for 45 minutes every other week, Duras said. Spacing themselves out in the school’s gymnasium using a custom-built wooden triangle with 6-foot long sides, they practiced through the spring for their final videotaped performance, which Duras submitted to the judges of The American Prize.

The group’s performances of “Children’s March” by Percy Grainger and “Come Sunday” by Omar Thomas could earn the Brunswick department a cash prize of up to $500, according to the award’s website. Yet the chance to gather and play through the pandemic has been rewarding enough on its own, Marblestone said.

“Music is just a really important and often overlooked part of a well-rounded education,” he said. “I’m glad that our school and Mr. Duras and Ms. (Ashley) Albert, our choir director, they all valued it enough to keep it going throughout the pandemic.

“They realized it’s more than just a class.”

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