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McCracken Band Makes Sweet Music

Middle school students sing praises about their director in earning statewide recognition.

There are certain constants about life in Skokie, and one of them is the Band being recognized as among the best in
the state.

Last month marked the fourth time since 2000 that the McCracken Symphonic Band was selected as an “honor” band at the University of Illinois SuperState Concert Band Festival.

That was followed with an announcement that June 6 was proclaimed McCracken Middle School Band Day by Mayor George Van Dusen, who singled out band director Chip De Stefano for his teaching ability and running a consistent program.

“It’s a very prestigious honor,” De Stefano said of the distinction from the state. “For a public school in Illinois, it is probably one of the biggest honors they can
receive.”

This year there were 12 middle school bands in the SuperState competition in addition to 23 high school bands. To be considered, the band submits a CD recording. McCracken had four selections on its entry, with selections ranging from 12-20 minutes.  In the end, a judging panel listens to the best CDs.

“For any public school to be selected to participate in this competition is an honor,” said De Stefano, who has been the band's director for 15 years.

De Stefano goes out of his way to praise the efforts of the 200-plus band members, including the 56 participants in the symphonic band. He cites the time commitment as 40-minute rehearses are held every day starting at 7:20 a.m. and a 90-minute practice is held after school on Tuesdays.

“I’m extremely proud,” De Stefano said. “They put in long hours with me and long hours away from me practicing their instruments. They work very hard.  This honor is a result of those efforts.”

But as much as De Stefano praises the band members, euphonium player Luc Walkington speaks for many of the students in talking up what their director has done for them. 

“Now that I look back on five years of being in the band. I realize that Mr. De Stefano has taught me and all the other kids a new language,” Luc said. “That language being music.”

Luc specifically mentioned how De Stefano prepared the band for a competition. 

“He records us while we are practicing and he’ll play back the music so we know what we sound like,” he said. “Then he will compare us to a college band or whatever band he finds. We know we will never be as good as that band, but we will try our best to pretty much match up in terms of dynamics and togetherness.”

Flute player Natalie Niederman added: “It is really fun to play for him. He has a lot of energy and he is always there. We see him a lot and we have become one big family.”

The SuperState honor is the culmination of a lot of hard work for Luc, 13, who will enroll at Niles North High School this fall after a summer of caddying. It was the third time he had competed at the SuperState competition, which was held in Champaign from May 6-7, and after two other tries, this time he came away with the honor. 

“I couldn’t have asked for a better experience; I’ve been dying to win Superstate for a long time,” Luc said. “Typically Mr. De Stefano prepares us enough and most kids have been there before and we went to a recording session earlier this year so we knew we were getting ourselves into.

"I put a little more pressure on myself because I wanted to end my McCracken career with a bang,” he added.

Luc plays the euphonium, a brass instrument similar to the tuba and one the teen describes as “unspoken hero” of the band world. He said it may not be an instrument that everyone recognizes, but he was drawn to it, with good results for him.

“I had seen kids play it before because it seemed easier and there was an opening in the symphonic band.  I switched instruments and I tried out and I made the band,” the 13-year-old recalled.

Luc plans to pursue music at Niles North and hopes that interest will lead to bigger things one day.  “I have dreams of going to college and this might be a great way of getting into college and maybe even getting a scholarship.”

Another member of the band who is glad that he switched instruments is Natalie's twin brother, Aaron, who took up the trombone in the fourth grade after listening to a lot of his father’s jazz record.

"Jazz songs have a lot of trombone," he said. "I thought it was unique instrument.”

Aaron acknowledges some difficult moments in learning to play the trombone, but he is pleased with his selection as well as being part of the McCracken band.

“I’m glad I stuck with it,” Aaron said. “It has given me opportunities to meet new
people and it has been fun. I love that I am part of it.”

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