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Headed to the big time - IS 318’s Senior Band to play on Carnegie Hall’s stage

The talented and hard-working Senior Concert Band at IS 318 (101 Walton Street) will soon take their act from Brooklyn’s Broadway Triangle to Carnegie Hall.

On June 4, the 60-piece horns and woodwinds band will play at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall as part of PS Arts Week, an annual event showcasing elite public school programs in theater, visual arts, dance, and music.

The show is not open to the public.

Consisting of 7th and 8th graders, the IS 318 band earned their invitation earlier this year after Barbara Murray, director of music at the Department of Education, sat in on one of their rehearsals.

Evidently, she came away impressed. Within a week, school music program director Willy Hakim received the invitation to Carnegie in the mail.

The invitation is not the first accolade the school’s band has received this year.

Earlier in the year, the band won a grant to work with musicians from the Brooklyn Philharmonic once a week. In April, the band’s clarinet quartet took home first place in the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble Contest. And the school’s marching band, which once played before Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Governor George Pataki, is a staple at parades throughout the city.

All of this is testament to a group of youngsters Hakim termed “the hardest-working kids you’ll ever come across.”

“There’s something very special about the kids that come to this school. It’s a very special place to be,” said Hakim, a trumpet player by trade who took over the music program in 1989.

The band’s intensive rehearsal schedule lends truth to the answer of “Practice” to the question: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Four days a week, the band rehearses for 45 minutes.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the program is every one of its students began with no formal experience playing an instrument.

Before they start 5th grade, incoming students interested in the program take musical aptitude tests designed to measure their note recognition and rhythm.

Of the approximately 500 students who try out each year, only 45 make the cut.

These talented few are then back in school at the beginning of July, when they begin a five-week, four-hours-a-day orientation program designed to provide a basic musical foundation.

Interestingly, the students generally do not choose their instruments. Rather, Hakim makes this decision by looking at their facial and mouth configurations and matching the mouths to suitable mouthpieces.

(Children with braces, for instance, are better candidates for woodwinds than horns.)

Most of the teaching in 6th grade is dedicated to preparation for the 7th and 8th grade Senior Band. While the focus in 6th grade is on concepts and reading music, it progresses to articulation, phrasing, and expressiveness in 7th and 8th grades.

The result of all the rigorous work with these talented students is a band whose members are advanced beyond their years in terms of both skill and work ethic.

“Every time we perform, someone will ask me, ‘What high school are these kids from?” Hakim said proudly.

By the time they graduate from I.S. 318, many students have become coveted musical prospects for high school bands throughout the city.

Hakim estimates that the vast majority of his students continue to play music in high school, with around 20 percent using it to boost their applications to elite high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

An additional 20 percent of his band members continue on to pursue music at elite arts schools like LaGuardia in Manhattan, or Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts in Long Island City, Hakim said.

What makes the current state of the music program even more impressive is the shape in which Hakim found it upon taking over in 1989.

“I took the job without even looking in the instrument closet. When I looked in the closet after taking the job, there was nothing in it,” he remembered.

Like its musicians, the music program has come a long way.

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