Hitting All the High Notes

For the graduating seniors in the Tufts Wind Ensemble, it’s been four years of fun and community—with a touch of Dropkick Murphys

Tommy George and Melissa Wishner, with their wind instruments

At commencement this Sunday, Melissa Wishner, A19, will rise early, pick up her alto sax, and walk to a familiar, small square tent on the Academic Quad. Tommy George, E19, will head there, too, with his bass clarinet.

They could choose to process with the Class of 2019, but they’d rather be here, among about twenty-five musicians from the fifty-member Tufts Wind Ensemble. Together, they will set the musical stage with selections ranging from classic marches and evocative folk songs to soundtracks from Disney films and Harry Potter.

They know this ritual well: they’ve performed with the ensemble at commencement since they were freshmen, and they can’t imagine spending this morning anywhere else, among friends, playing instruments they’ve loved since grade school.

“To me, it’s the best of both worlds,” said Wishner, Wind Ensemble president, who will be “wearing my cap and gown and throwing my hat when everyone does. Graduation is about spending time with people who are important to you and part of your Tufts community, and to me, that is the Wind Ensemble. And I think it’s pretty cool—most people can’t say they got to play ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ at their own graduation.”

George agreed. “It feels like closure after having done it every year with the same group,” he said. “It’s the right note to end on, to play with the people I’ve played with for four years.”

Growing up a “Band Kid”

Wishner has been devoted to the alto sax since the day when, as a curious third grader, she happened on her grandfather’s vintage instrument stowed in the back of a closet. “Music is just something I’ve always loved,” said Wishner, who went on to play with school bands in Ardsley, New York. “I love being part of the band and creating music together—that’s always been most rewarding part of making music.”

“It’s the right note to end on, to play with the people I’ve played with for four years,” said Tommy George, here with Melissa Wishner. Photo: Alonso Nichols“It’s the right note to end on, to play with the people I’ve played with for four years,” said Tommy George, here with Melissa Wishner. Photo: Alonso Nichols
George, a self-described “band kid” since elementary school in Danbury, Connecticut, was smitten by the clarinet after hearing a music group playing in a local library. “It was all these different types of clarinets,” he said, “and I liked the way they sounded. I thought, ‘If I had to pick an instrument, it would be that one.’”

As a freshman at Tufts, he went to a music department open house and discovered the Wind Ensemble. “I was really delighted to discover this accessible group that was designed to basically take people like me, who played throughout high school and well before,” he said. “I had made a lot of friends through similar programs, so I was excited to continue to have music as an outlet here.”

Students who join the Wind Ensemble rehearse twice weekly for four concerts, two a semester. It’s a serious commitment, said George and Wishner, but the group is friendly and noncompetitive, a welcome balance to their academic studies, respectively, in engineering and child studies.

That sense of belonging to a close-knit community, they said, reflects the dedication and spirited leadership of conductor John McCann, who has been band director at Tufts since 1986.

“Wind Ensemble is where we get together and laugh together,” said George. “It’s always been a group to release pressure, rather than to have more pressure added on, which is important when you’re taking on activities at college.”

“The conductor sets the tone,” agreed Wishner. “At Tufts, we make beautiful music and we have fun. We joke around. We all go out and have dinner after a rehearsal—and try to have lunch together, too. A lot of that sense of community is because of John; he’s welcoming musically, but also focused on the whole experience.”

McCann likes to make concerts an interactive experience for the audience. At Wishner’s first concert, which was for children, they were playing music from Toy Story. McCann suggested that during “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” somebody should dress up as a cowboy or cowgirl and lead the crowd in the song.

“As a newcomer wanting to prove myself, so I volunteered,” said Wishner. “My parents brought me a little vest and a cowboy hat, and I stood in front of the crowd, my face bright red, singing the song. That kind of set the tone for what’s been a really fun, enthusiastic experience.”

That sense of fun is a hallmark of the Wind Ensemble. When a rehearsal landed on April Fool’s Day this year, the students swapped “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys for the piece they were planning to rehearse.

“We passed out music beforehand and just jumped in when he started conducting,” said George. McCann was surprised, but also impressed with the band’s ability to sight read—for most members it was the first time they had played the song. He was so pleased that he suggested they play it at their next concert. “He said it was the best thing that happened to him all day,” said George.

From Early English Folksongs to the Dropkick Murphys

The Dropkick Murphys surprise song turned out to be so popular that it’s making encore appearance at commencement this year. The program also will include other selections from previous concerts, such as highlights from Beauty and the Beast, the early English folksong “Three Ayres from Gloucester,” and “Hogwarts’ March” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

“We keep it light,” said McCann, who has been conducting the commencement program since 1992. “Mostly I’m guided by what the students want to do. They’re good sports to play at commencement. It’s a commitment that means—if they’re not seniors—that they’re either coming back or sticking around for an extra week.”

For George and Wishner, commencement this year is, of course, a rite of passage. They know their family members will be among the 5,000 guests filling the Academic Quad, and they will be looking out for their classmates and friends as they march by at the beginning of the ceremony.

George, who is heading off to a Ph.D. program in applied physics at Harvard, says he’s looking forward to another chance to perform “March of the Belgian Parachutists.” The four bass clarinetists “have been calling that melody our theme song,” he said. “It’s a memory of the time when the bass clarinet section was the largest it’s ever been, and also of how tight-knit we became as musicians.”

Wishner said her favorite from this year’s program is the old Irish folk song “The Minstrel Boy.” “The song really captures for me the feeling of unity and wholeness, producing a sound that is greater than the sum of its parts,” she said. “That is the essence of what Wind Ensemble has been of for me these four years at Tufts—a coming together of many different members from various walks of life at Tufts, but together producing a community that can create something far greater than any individual could alone.” 

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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