Houston High School junior Levi McConnell enjoyed a rare experience in February.
The accomplished musician played tuba with the 2023 High School Honors Band at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“It was really something special,” McConnell said. “It was amazing to think that I’ve performed in one of the world’s most famous venues.”
McConnell has studied music for seven years and is a member of HHS Tiger Pride Marching Band, Jazz Band and Concert Band. In addition to tuba, he plays trumpet, euphonium and trombone, and has earned multiple awards in high school tuba solo competition, including a gold medal in districts and a silver at state. He has played in the South Central Association conference band twice on trumpet and tuba, has performed in the UMKC Honor Band in three different years and played bass trombone in a STARS Foundation production of “The Music Man.”
After Honors Band organizers saw his tuba performances last year at districts and state, McConnell was invited to submit an audio-video audition last August and was accepted after a review by the Honors Selection Board. He was among about 10,000 applicants nationwide.
McConnell said he likes aspects of all the instruments he plays.
“Each one has its own specialties and strengths, and I don’t think I could pick a favorite,” he said. “The trombone is fun to articulate with in jazz and it’s fun to make sure my slide positions are accurate if I’m playing in concert with it. But with the big tuba, I get more range out of my instrument and I have more ability to support everybody.”
Sponsored by WorldStrides (a leading educational travel organization in the U.S.), the Honors Performance Series is designed to showcase top-notch individual student performers on an international level and provide them an opportunity to study under master conductors and perform in world renowned venues. McConnell’s conductor in New York was Dr. Jason Noble, director of music education studies at New York University – Steinhardt.
“He had a very good understanding of music and the way that things sound the best,” McConnell said, “so he was able to show everyone there how to change very small things to make a very big difference. And it was really great to play with 50-something kids in my age group who were at the level I’m at.
“And Carnegie Hall is big. For our final piece, we held one note for 30 seconds, starting soft and then getting loud. After we had stopped, that note held on throughout the harmonics of the hall for another 19 seconds.”
McConnell said that being part of a group of such elite musicians required a bit of adaptation.
“It was very different from what I’m used to,” he said. “Here, it’s like I do my best to be the foundation so other people in the band can feel like they don’t need to single themselves out and they can kind of fall into my sound. There, it was everybody being the foundation all on their own, and once we realized that we didn’t need all of us to be that way, it became very comforting.”
“I think it’s something special to get into the room after competing to get there,” said Houston band director Sam Van Dielen, “and then to no longer have to compete with others and just enjoy them. You know all those kids are the biggest fish in their ponds, and I can only imagine how enjoyable it must have been when you reach the point of letting go of that responsibility.”
In band jargon, the four pieces played by the Honor Band were Grade 5, bordering on grade 6.
“They were of college-level difficulty, as opposed to what we’re doing here,” Van Dielen said.
McConnell said one of the best things about the experience was finishing and standing up in front of a large, appreciative crowd inside one of the greatest concert halls on Earth.
“It was kind of overwhelming,” he said.
“I’m so proud of this kid,” Van Dielen said. “Having been his band director since his freshman year, the growth I’ve seen from him is tremendous. Everywhere Levi plays, he gets compliments from strangers, and it’s really something to play tuba well enough that strangers tell you that.”
McConnell and his family had to foot the bill for the trip, so Levi did some fundraising that proved to be effective.
“Not only am I proud of Levi and his musicianship allowing him to access opportunities like that,” Van Dielen said, “but I’m also proud of him and his family for pushing themselves to ensure he could capitalize on that opportunity. I know plenty of people who would not have risen to the occasion of raising all that money; sometimes doing something like that is a formative experience all its own.
“The McConnell family is a fantastic example of how to enable your child and provide advocacy. There’s some great parenting going on there.”
Van Dielen feels that McConnell personifies the goal being pursued in the HHS band room.
“I honestly believe that the true test of what we’re accomplishing here in this band program is how well students can take their talents into the real world,” Van Dielen said. “This is a very safe and confined environment, and one that’s purely educational. We have to understand that there’s a big difference between playing in the educational scene and a more professional setting where you have to be more independent.
“Levi is the essence of what we’re trying to achieve here. I hope other students see that and take it as an indicator that what they’re getting here at Houston can carry them into the real world.”
“It’s better to take risks for the sake of challenging yourself than to sit back and feel comfortable with where you are,” he said. “To be able to get better at something, you need to step out of your comfort zone.”
“I never took opportunities like that when I was Levi’s age,” Van Dielen said, “and I’m that much more proud of him for doing it.”
“Levi is a leader and he knows that, and I trust him,” Van Dielen said. “He’s a great musician and going to Carnegie Hall was the sum of his efforts.”