Waubonsie percussionist performs with national honor ensembles
In a school district with "fairly unprecedented" musical success -- at least according to the Grammy Foundation -- one student has just accomplished something no other has before: he's played in a nationwide honor band.
This fall, Waubonsie Valley High School junior Meher Sethi was named a member of the All-National Honor Ensembles convened by the National Association for Music Educators. The 16-year-old Naperville percussionist rose to the national level after performing at the All-State level last year through the Illinois Music Education Association.
Music educators throughout Indian Prairie Unit District 204, which has been recognized with 16 Grammys for its strong music programs, are not aware of any other student to have performed with a national honor band, said Mark Duker, fine arts chairman at Waubonsie.
Meher traveled to Florida for four days in November to enjoy the national experience, which he said allowed him to join the "best percussion section I've ever been a part of."
That's saying something, considering Meher's musical repertoire.
He plays with the top band at his high school and the top jazz band, along with a jazz combo, a brass band and a percussion quintet.
Outside of Waubonsie, he joined the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras in sixth grade, made it to the top orchestra in eighth grade, and now is the group's principal percussionist. He has performed in seven European countries.
What drives him, Meher says, is the ability of percussion to be the central, driving force in music. Maybe it's the patter of footsteps or the tick of a clock. Whatever the sound, he said, percussion is a building block and a staple across cultures.
"I was really in love with the ability to provide, like, a heart for an ensemble," Meher said.
At home, he has a drum set, a marimba, a tambourine, a box-shaped percussion instrument called a cajon and an African instrument called a djembe, along with a piano, guitar and ukulele. He also has studied Indian percussion, especially the tabla, as a way to explore the heritage of his parents, who came to Naperville from India in 1998.
In the All-National Honor Ensembles -- Meher performed with the concert band and the mixed choir -- he played snare drum, timpani, glockenspiel and djembe.
"As a percussionist, our main responsibility is versatility," he said.
Duker has been familiar with Meher's work since the band director at Scullen Middle School in Naperville sent a video clip of the tween performing a four-mallet marimba piece. Many middle-schoolers don't have the dexterity for two mallets in each hand.
"He's been advanced for quite some time now," Duker said, describing Meher as a "deep thinker."
Meher's preparation and broad musical ability -- he's composed his own songs -- make him one of many talented students at Waubonsie whom instructors guide to reach for challenging and enriching performance opportunities, such as the national groups. Ten others joined Meher at the All-State level last year, and 10 from Waubonsie made it that far this year as well, Duker said.
But with such a busy schedule of school ensembles, the Chicago Youth Symphony, and his involvement in tennis, speech team and a youth and government club, a lucky break in timing was part of what allowed Meher to perform with the All-National ensembles after his audition video made the cut.
"That may open the door for more students in the future to pursue that," Duker said about the All-National status, "and hopefully have a really great music experience."
The All-National concert band played some challenging pieces under a theme meant to "encapsulate the American voice in as many avenues as possible," Meher said. Joining the group allowed him to play under the direction of the University of Minnesota's band director Emily Threinen, and to experience the company of others who share "the exact same definition of fun."
Meher said he plans to incorporate music into his college experience as a second major or a minor while he pursues fields along the lines of economics and political science. He doesn't envision music as a career, but he's not giving it up.
"It'll definitely be an important part of my life," he said.