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photo by Suzi Nelson, Wahoo Newspaper

LEADING THE WAY: Jason Smith conducts the Wahoo High School Band during the Veterans Day program on Nov. 11 at the Performance-Learning Center.

Smith leads WPS band program through year of successes

WAHOO – The Memorial Day program and a performance at Worlds of Fun by the Wahoo High School band will cap a school year full of great accomplishments for the band program and its director, Jason Smith.

The 2021-22 school year began with a stellar season for the high school marching band, which earned superior awards in all five of the competitions in which it was entered, including the State Marching Band Contest.

“It was the first superior at state since I restarted field marching nine years ago,” Smith said.

The school music program also received recognition from the Nebraska Music Education Association for a high level of participation in music. Smith said 41% of the students in grades 9 to 12 are involved in some form of band or choir, which helped Wahoo achieve the Level 3 Noteworthy award.

The Nebraska State Bandmasters Association honored Wahoo High School with the Academic Achievement Award for having an average grade point average of 3.5 or higher among music students.

For the second year in a row, the Wahoo Public Schools music program was listed among the Best Communities for Music Education in the country by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation.

And Smith was named the 2021 Music Educator of the Year by the Nebraska Music Education Association, an award he was not expecting.

“I was speechless,” he said.

It is definitely a school year to remember for Smith, who has been teaching music for a dozen years, 10 of them at Wahoo Public Schools.

While growing up in Ashland, Smith’s love of music was fostered by his grandmother, who couldn’t read music but could play the piano by ear.

“She really encouraged us to stay involved in the arts,” he remembered.

He knew since high school that he wanted to be a band teacher.

“In my junior year of high school I caught the bug,” he said.

Supportive teachers suggested the saxophone player learn to play multiple instruments.

“I just started learning more and more and picking up other instruments and trying new things,” Smith said.

After finishing his high school education at Ashland-Greenwood High School in 2004, Smith enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He graduated in 2009 with a degree in music education. He recently completed his masters of education in curriculum and instruction at Wayne State College.

Smith taught for two years at Bancroft-Rosalie Community School before coming to Wahoo in 2012.

He was excited for the chance to be closer to his parents, who still lived in Ashland at the time, but also to be back on familiar ground.

“I always saw myself teaching in a school or a position much like the one I grew up in,” he said.

Since taking the position of band director for grades 5 to 12, Smith has moved the Wahoo music program in a positive direction. He credits great leadership at the student, teacher and administrative levels for the success.

“The culture of this school and the music program is very good,” he said.

Smith has also created more occasions for students to perform and experience music outside of school by adding performances at local assisted and independent living facilities for the elderly, creating travel opportunities for the band to perform at places like Worlds of Fun and adding more field marching competitions.

Smith has brought in college professors to work with small groups to improve their performances.

He encourages his students to participate in honor bands and attend clinics.

“It’s just creating opportunities for students to push their musicality and have a good experience and bring that leaderships back to us,” Smith said.

Smith has fostered a mentoring program where high school students talk to middle school students about band.

“Allowing middle school students to ask high schoolers what band is like opens avenues and opportunities for those kids to be a part of the band family,” he said.

The hard work is paying off. The middle school and high school jazz band programs have grown, and Smith is seeing increased interest students in auditioning for honor bands. This fall, he expects a record number of students will try out for All-State Honor Band.

“The program is very healthy right now,” he said.

The community has also helped the program grow by supporting the construction of the Performance Learning Center at the high school a decade ago.

“Investment in the arts here at Wahoo has paid dividends for our programs,” he said.

The music program, and Smith’s success, are also demonstrated by the number of students that have gone on to to perform in college or university bands or pursue careers in music education. He has also mentored three student teachers in recent years, including one who was recently hired as the new band director for neighboring Raymond Central Public Schools.

The last few years have been a challenge for Smith and all school band directors. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down school in mid-March of 2020, Smith and his students were just gearing up for District Music Contest, which takes place in April. They were also forced to cancel their spring concerts.

As school reopened in the fall of 2021, Smith faced an uphill battle. He had to figure out a way to safely allow his band students to rehearse. He talked with other band directors across the state to develop a game plan.

Using the Performance Learning Center as his rehearsal space, Smith had his students sit in the audience area, spaced several feet apart. He conducted from the stage.

Smith also utilized livestreaming and recording to allow the public to see the band during the pandemic.

“It was reinventing how we performed,” he said.

The pandemic kept a few students from returning to band once school reopened, but those numbers are rebounding, Smith said, and will continue to climb.

The students who participate in music have the opportunity to learn more than just how to read music. Music incorporates all areas of curriculum, including art, math, science and history, Smith said.

“Wherever you go, music is a part of the human experience and it’s important that students are educated consumers of music and ideally participants,” he said.

Suzi Nelson is the managing editor of The Wahoo Newspaper. Reach her via email at suzi.nelson@ashland-gazette.com.

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Smith leads WPS band program through year of successes

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