With artists from Europe, Asia and America scheduled to perform, visitors to the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival may be surprised to discover that one group did not have to travel a great distance to perform.
The Smith-Cotton High School Orchestra will open the festival at 10 a.m. today at the Stark Pavilion, East Fifth Street and South Ohio Avenue, with their performance of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Pine Apple Rag.”
Recipients of the 2018 Larry Karp Memorial Scholarship fund and under the direction of Mike Moellman, the orchestra members are both honored and grateful for the opportunity.
“The Scott Joplin Festival Committee was looking for ways to incorporate young, local musicians into the festival,” Moellman said. “Naturally, I was very excited to hear the news that we had been selected to receive the scholarship.
“The students are also excited, especially about being asked to play at the festival,” he added. “They have worked hard to put the music together and it has been a great learning opportunity for all involved.”
Originally asked to play only the “Maple Leaf Rag,” Moellman said the members wanted to perform the “Pine Apple Rag,” which was chosen as the theme for this year’s festival.
The task has been somewhat challenging. With the end of the school year, the orchestra had a number of events to prepare for including state large ensemble and solo performances, the spring orchestra concert, candlelighting and commencement, among others.
“In addition to working on the music for each of these events, we’ve been working on the Joplin tunes a little at a time,” Moellman explained. “As each concert date and performance passed, we put more and more priority on preparation for the Scoot Joplin Festival.
“Ragtime music is tricky to begin with, especially with the syncopation of the rhythms, the interval jumps in the melody and all the chromaticism that gives it flavor,” he continued. “It can be complicated for one person to play on the piano let alone for an ensemble of several groups of musicians.”
Fortunately, there are a number of strong readers and players in the orchestra who have risen to the challenge collectively, according to Moellman.
The members’ enthusiasm and positive attitudes have also helped.
“It’s taken a lot of individual practice, or ‘woodshedding’ as it’s sometimes called, for each member to learn their given part and then plenty of rehearsals as an ensemble,” Moellman said. “Many of the students in the orchestra have enjoyed playing pieces with a ‘swing feel’ during the past couple of years.
“I tend to pick at least one jazz-inspired piece for them each semester,” he continued. “The range in Joplin’s music, as well as the syncopation, has been the most challenging swing-infused music we’ve attempted yet — luckily the feel of the piece fits us like a glove.”
With a long tradition of music in Sedalia, the S-C Orchestra continues to grow, according to Moellman, who noted his mother played second violin in the Smith-Cotton Orchestra in the ’60s.
After an absence of several years, then Heber Hunt Elementary Principal Wade Norton approached Sedalia resident and noted music instructor Barbara Schrader about starting a program at the school in 2010, according to information in the Festival’s official souvenir program.
Through a series of struggles, including finding the instruments and increasing membership, the orchestra is now thriving.
Norton, now Smith-Cotton High School principal, plans to be in attendance as he watches his students perform.
“We are so proud of the growth of this program,” Norton said. “We continue to grow and are excited to showcase the program at the Scott Joplin International Festival. These kids have worked their tails off.”
Moellman echoed Norton’s pride.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time any group from Smith-Cotton High School has been asked to perform at the festival, but I don’t claim to know that to be a fact since I certainly don’t know the entire history of the festival,” Moellman said. “I will say that we’re extremely honored to play and are proud to represent Smith-Cotton High School in this year’s festival.”