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NHS Music Program Recognized by Essex County; Students Reflect on Successful Year

Last Wednesday, May 24th, students and staff from the NHS Music department were commended by the Essex County Board of Commissioners, complete with certificates, group photos, and an impromptu performance of "Alma Mater". 


“It was an amazing experience,” said senior Uriel Concepcion. He is the associate concertmaster of the string orchestra, and has been long-involved in NHS’ choir and theater programs. “Not every person can say they’ve been recognized by their county for their school’s musical achievements.” 


This comes after a long year of accomplishments, with few days of rest between championships, celebrity encounters, and concerts. 


The music program started the year strong on November 6th, when the NHS Marching Band won USBands’ National Championships with their program, "Heist". The show followed a group of thieves (the color guard) as they evaded the rest of the band, pursuing a giant diamond in a laser-guarded vault. Watching from the stands was Angelina Hamada, the new band director who was just experiencing her first year at Nutley High School. 


“Winning was absolutely surreal,” said Caroline Ritacco, the marching band’s drum major who is also heavily involved in the school’s choir, instrumental, and theater programs. “Our new director has done so much for our program. Having her really taught me that change isn’t a bad thing.”


But the music department’s action streak hadn’t stopped there. January welcomed new director Elizabeth Nowik to the string orchestra, marking not just one, but two tremendous staffing changes this year. 


The orchestra program, being so new, is the little sister of the high school band and chorus programs,” Nowik said. “The difficulty of coming in as a new teacher in January speaks for itself, but it’s extra tricky coming into a program that is still establishing itself. There’s less structure and precedent to hold on to when you’re figuring things out as a new teacher.”


“It was a difficult change to adjust to, but I think we handled it really well as a group,” Concepcion said. “I think having Ms. Nowik was a real learning experience for me and for the orchestra as a whole.” 


April saw another rush of victory and opportunity. Select students from the choir programs got the chance to perform alongside Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre in Lincoln Center, watching him conduct his own songs and working alongside his creative process. 


“It was one of the coolest experiences ever,” said Ritacco. “Working with him and being coached by him was such a blast.”


Also that month, the Indoor Percussion program won USBands’ regional championships with a score of 96.5 – the highest score Nutley has ever received. 


“I really wasn’t that surprised when I heard our name and score, but that comes from a place of confidence I had in the whole ensemble,” said senior Ben Coulson, who played center snare drum in the ensemble. “I knew we could break our own records and expectations. We spend so much time together that it really does become your second home.” 


Indoor Percussion’s director, Julia Wehrer, couldn’t be more proud. “I was blown away by the score,” said Wehrer. “When I see the kids perform, I feel like a proud mom. The students put so much time and effort into our productions and seeing them absolutely shine during a performance is so rewarding.”


Without missing a beat, all three music programs – band, choir, and orchestra – entered Busch Gardens’ Music in the Parks competition during a field trip at the end of April. They performed pieces they’d practiced for months in advance, and after all their hard work, all three ensembles returned with ‘Superior’ ratings, and with the Esprit de Corps award for conduct. 


“Getting the ‘Superior’ rating for strings was honestly a surprise for me, since we could only get a few people to come on the trip in the first place,” said Concepcion. “But I know that we worked really hard, and honestly, I’m so happy we brought back something to be proud of.”


With things finally – finally – slowing down in May for these young musicians, the seniors couldn’t be prouder of how far the program has come. “I think this was the perfect season to end my tenure,” Coulson said, referencing the successes in marching band and indoor percussion. “I can’t really say I have any regrets.”


To the continuing members of the orchestra, Nowik said, “The seniors walked so that you could run.” 


When asked how she felt now that she was graduating, Ritacco simply said, “They’ll be in great hands.”


But even as endless opportunities leave students tired, busy, and ready to relax, there’s still plenty of hope for the coming years. “I’m so excited for the future of the string program and the determination of all the kids over the years as it grows,” said Nowik. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of kids to inherit coming in here.”


“This was a really good year in orchestra,” said freshman Isabela Ramirez, who plays violin and participates in Choralettes. “I’ve seen so much growth in all of the ensembles I’m in. I’m definitely planning on continuing here.”


It’s safe to say that Nutley High School’s music program has been busy this year; but in return, the program has grown their trophy case, inspired their students, and gained an audience as far as the national stage, waiting for what this amazing school will do next. 

“I really hope that people continue in music,” said Concepcion. “As much as we win awards, we can never lose focus on what's important:  creating a community of friends and family. And even more important is having fun. That’s the biggest reason that I stayed, and I hope others feel the same.”