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Music & The Pursuit of Excellence


Terese Bower McIlvain

Daniel Briggs, grand knight of Maria Council 4836 in Park Ridge, Ill., leads the concert band comprised of girls from Mother McAuley High School and boys from Brother Rice High School. (photo by John Zich)

The sound of clarinets and tubas bounced off the navy blue lockers and echo down the brightly lit hallways of St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, Ill. Scores of teenagers dressed in black pants or skirts and white dress shirts hurry to find their practice rooms. They are gathered for a unique event: the only competition in the United States exclusively for Catholic high school bands.

This past year, 20 bands representing 17 schools gathered Feb. 16 to compete in the 33rd annual State of the Art Catholic Band Competition. The event, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, takes place on the third Saturday of February each year at a Chicago-area Catholic high school.

Begun in 1981 by Terry Redford, who served then as band director of Driscoll Catholic High School in Addison, the event started out with just a few bands, but has grown over time. “I saw that students were discouraged when they tried to go up against the very large, organized, and well-funded public school bands at the competitions,” Redford recalled. “Since they knew they were going to lose, they did not put in a good effort.”

Within the first few years of the competition, Redford added, the standards of the Catholic schools’ music programs noticeably improved. Today, State of the Art continues to fill a special niche for area Catholic school students, especially for students coming from smaller schools. According to Greg Bimm, the band director at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, there are many public competitions that Catholic high schools can enter, but having one for just Catholic schools is important.

“Catholic schools deal with some unique challenges in terms of developing a strong band,” said Bimm, who has participated in State of the Art since its inception. “Having a competition between similar bands helps the students take full responsibility for how well they have prepared. In turn, they not only become more responsible as individuals, but they work harder to support each other.”


State of the Art is made possible by not only the hard work of students, band directors and the host school, but also by the financial support of nine area K of C units. Local Knights also provide trophies and plaques to participants, volunteers to run the event, and a Fourth Degree honor guard for the awards ceremony.

The competition consists of each band playing two pieces that together last 25 minutes or less. Judges score each band in nine different categories — such as tone quality, note accuracy, blend and total balance — using a 1-100 scale. A score of 50 points would be considered average, while a score of 100 would be the best the judge has ever heard.

One of the judges, Barry Houser, was enthusiastic about his first year of judging the competition. “People really don’t see Catholic schools as having high-quality programs or an emphasis on the arts, but what I’m seeing today is an impressive array of programs,” he said.

Houser is a highly sought-after professional who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and directs the Marching Illini athletic bands. “It is wonderful to see how talented the students are and how much effort has been put into preparing for this competition,” he added. “Musical education appears to be alive and well in the Catholic schools.”

The students were also enthusiastic about the competition. The most common sentiment expressed among participants was that State of the Art allows them to see where they stand among their peers.

“I like seeing where I can improve and where my band as a whole can improve,” said Blake Bonaparte, a freshman at Marian Catholic High School. “We all depend on each other to form a cohesive unit, but each individual musician needs to play his best, too.”

These thoughts were seconded by Michael Ferreter, co-chairman of this year’s competition and a member of Holy Rosary Council 4483 in Arlington Heights.

“Band demands such a high level of excellence from all of the players,” he said. “In baseball, a guy who hits .300 still fails 70 percent of the time, yet they put him in the Hall of Fame. In music, missing even 10 percent of the notes would be disastrous. Everyone has to work hard individually and as a team, which pushes them to a higher standard.”


Most high school bands have different seasons throughout the year. The fall often carries a heavy emphasis on the marching band and preparation for a Christmas concert, whereas the second semester represents a new season and a fresh set of music.

According to Thomas Seaman, St. Viator’s band director, State of the Art is highly motivating for his students because it is their only band competition during the year. “They only have this one opportunity to compete, and they really want to win. It helps them work much harder,” he said.

Students at other schools, such as Marian Catholic, compete regularly but still see the event as an incentive to strive for perfection.

“This competition falls very early in our second semester. It pushes the students to learn their new music early and well,” explained Bimm. “They want to win, and it means that I can get their best work from them months earlier than I could otherwise.”

Co-chairman of the event, Frank Rice, a member of Holy Ghost Council 10325 in Wood Dale, laughed when he heard this.

“If it sounds like the bands take winning seriously, they do,” said Rice. “It’s a positive thing though, because it gives the kids a definite goal to work toward, and that helps them develop self-discipline and a commitment to their classmates and conductor.”

Developing a musical talent is hard work, he added, but it also makes performing more enjoyable and rewarding. Indeed, the students participating in State of the Art are not only learning to compete, but many are participating in band and playing an instrument for the first time.

Co-chairman Frank Rice of Holy Ghost Council 10325 in Wood Dale speaks to the audience of students and their parents about the Knights of Columbus prior to the awards ceremony. (photo by John Zich)

“Most of our band members did not play an instrument at all before joining and have learned everything, including reading music, in band,” said Cindy Gradek, conductor at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago. “They work very hard to learn their instruments and then to work together as a group.”

Several band directors said that many of their students continue to play instruments in college or bring their musical talents to their churches’ music or youth programs. Some students even go on to play professionally. The directors also noted that excellence in band can result in admittance to better colleges, often with significant scholarships.


At the end of this year’s competition — a 12-hour day that began at 7 a.m. — it was time for the awards ceremony. With a Fourth Degree honor guard flanking the stage, Rice suggested that the assembly give thanks to God. The crowded auditorium grew silent for a moment before several hundred voices prayed the Our Father in unison. Rice also took the opportunity to speak with the students about the numerous charitable efforts of the Knights of Columbus, and he encouraged the young Catholic men present to join the Order when they turn 18.

Then came the much-anticipated announcement of awards. Every school was given an award for participating, while some school bands claimed prizes in categories like “Best Woodwinds,” “Best Brass” and “Best Percussion.” There were also awards for exemplary conduct and most improved score, and recognition of best performances at each of three levels. The final award, the Grand Championship, was awarded to Marian Catholic for the 23rd time in 33 years. This honor will secure the band’s right to perform an additional exhibition piece at the start of next year’s award ceremony.

Students beamed with excitement as they went up to receive their trophies and plaques, posing proudly with the co-chairmen Rice and Ferreter.

After the last awards had been handed out and the ceremony concluded, even students whose schools had not won an award were in high spirits. At the front of the auditorium, Marian band members were trying to figure out how to transport their enormous plaque. Nearby, Knights from the honor guard chatted with Rice and Ferreter. One of the Knights remarked that it must be a lot of work to put together a competition of this size.

“It is, but it’s worth it,” replied Ferreter.

Rice added, “Wonderful things happen when students are given an opportunity to participate in the arts. Doing their best brings glory to God, and a competition like this encourages them to do their best. If they can do their best here, it will help them do their best everywhere else.”

TERESE BOWER MCILVAIN writes from Lake Bluff, Illinois. Her husband, Timothy, is a member of Lake Forest Council 1268 and her late father, Eric Steven Bower, was a past grand knight of Ouilmette Council 922 in Wilmette.