Roosevelt High music director leads students to Carnegie Hall

Gregg Abe and members of the Symphonic Band head to New York City next week

On March 9, 60 Roosevelt High School students will embark on the trip of a lifetime.

Members of the Symphonic Band are heading to New York City for the 2019 New York Wind Band Festival. 

The itinerary includes a performance at historic Carnegie Hall on March 13.

“It’s beyond my dreams as far as high school playing goes, and it’s so exciting to even have this opportunity,” said senior Kelsey Tokuda, who plays the flute and piccolo.

Lakota Nguyen, a junior who plays tenor sax, said, “I’m really excited because it’s really amazing how a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can be represented on such a big stage like Carnegie Hall.

“I know musicians wait their whole entire careers to be able to perform at that, and we get to perform there as high-schoolers,” Nguyen added.

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The band is performing under the leadership of music director Gregg Abe, who last took his students to New York in 2003, when the Roosevelt High School Marching Band performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“When this opportunity came up, we thought let’s give it a shot and see what happens, because we had nothing to lose. Low and behold in September, we got a letter saying that you’re one of four bands being accepted, so that was great,” Abe said.

The band will perform two pieces, including one that was commissioned specifically for this trip: “Four Seasons of Japan” by Satoshi Yagisawa.

“I’ve known (Yagisawa) for about the past 10 years, and he was thrilled to take on the opportunity to compose a piece for us so we could perform it at Carnegie,” Abe said. “Because he told me that he’s never had any of his works performed at Carnegie, so he was really excited to do this, and he’s going to be there too to see the piece be performed.

The second piece, written by Vietnamese composer Viet Cuong, is called “Diamond Tide.” 

“It’s basically about how scientists have found a way to melt a diamond, so it involves a lot of unusual percussion instruments to create a lot of different types of effects,” Abe said.

In addition to regular practice, special rehearsals were held every Tuesday evening for two-and-a-half hours.

“The students have worked really hard. I mean extremely hard. I’m super proud of them for all their accomplishments,” Abe said. “The majority of our students all have other obligations. A lot of them are in athletics. Lot of them have part-time jobs. Lot of them are participating in other school activities. But they all somehow made it work.”

Nguyen says it’s been a challenge to juggle school, rehearsals and sports. The date of the band’s departure coincides with her SATs and two water polo games.

“I wake up, I go to school, and then after school I go to my practice until about 6:30 to 7, and on Tuesdays when we have band rehearsals, I don’t get home until about 9:30, so after getting home and doing all your household chores, you don’t really start your homework until about 10 and stuff, so you stay up really late,” she said. “It takes a lot of self-discipline, but I know that it’s going to all pay off in the end, and it’s going to make me a better person.”

Students say Abe has played a big role in their success.

“He’s actually just been like a really great role model for us because he offers and sacrifices so much time and effort into us as a band and as people individually,” said junior Emiko Tajima, who plays the clarinet. “He opens up his band room during recess and lunch so people can have a place to stay.”

Tina Luu, a junior who plays the trumpet, said, “He’s definitely taught me never to give up and always to work hard at what I do, especially when it gets really rough, just continue to do it, because it’ll all be worth it in the end, and I’m super grateful that he’s taught me that and encouraged me so much.”

Abe has been teaching at Roosevelt High School for 33 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

“It’s not necessarily easy, but I enjoy it thoroughly, because I think if I stop doing this, I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. I don’t know what I would be doing. I just really enjoy being around the students,” he said.

The band will be performing a special preview of their Carnegie Hall set at Roosevelt High School on Tuesday, March 5, at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium. The concert is free and open to the public.