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Gold Medal Performers: The Hornell High School Vocal Music Program wins national honors (videos and story)

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When the 95 students from the Hornell High School Vocal Music program travelled to Washington, D.C. to compete in the WorldStrides Onstage Choral Competition Trip earlier this month, little did they know they would be coming home with a full fire truck escort.

After competing in four categories with the Senior High Choir, Jazz Choir, Treble Choir and Chamber Choir, the students got a workout attending the WorldStrides Awards Ceremony at Westfield Marriott Hotel in Chantilly, Va.

In a record-setting year, Hornell won the Gold in Senior High Choir and much more:


* Treble Choir: Gold

* Jazz Choir: Gold 

* Senior High Choir: Gold

* Sweepstakes Award: Best Choral Program at Festival

* Sweepstakes Award: Best Overall Choir: Jazz Choir (1st of 8 choirs)

And if that wasn’t enough, the individual honors started piling up as well.

Seniors Hannah Newark and Joshua Plank were honored with Maestro (Solo) Awards, which are given to students who display extraordinary musical ability and sensitivity.

And the biggest award, the Ovation Award, went to Hornell senior John Mikolajczyk. The Ovation Award is given to one student at the festival whose contributions to their music program transcends the making of music. This student represents the spirit of determination, inspiration, and service to others.

Hornell took home several individual awards as well at the world competition in D.C.

“I am so unbelievably proud of our students. They are filled with determination and desire — strength and compassion — a steadfast belief that what they do matters not just for themselves, but for those around them,” said Christopher J. van Leeuwen, the Hornell High School Director of Vocal Music. “I don’t think many people realize that performing on that level for that length of time is incredibly taxing on a performer, both physically and emotionally.

“The literature demands us to contemplate the death of loved ones, the struggle and contradictions that exist between our hearts and minds, and to reach for a deep and profound acceptance of questioning the many facets of the human experience,” van Leeuwen said. “These trips are far more than just ‘getting out of class.’ We do our best to reach for lessons and experiences that extend far beyond the limitations of a classroom and we do it with a common goal, simultaneously.”

Mikolajczyk said he could feel the emotions in the choir and the audience when the choir performed the last song of the competition, “The Awakening” by Joseph Martin. When Martin was in high school, his vocal teacher was brutally murdered in her classroom and he wrote the song about the awakening from the bad dream.

“I enjoyed the Awakening the most. It was the very last song and the last song the judges would hear that day,” Mikolajczyk said. “There is a part toward the end where there are cascading notes as we are singing ‘awake, awake’ repeatedly. You awake from this slumber, this world, this horrible nightmare with no music, which is similar to how we have been without music the last three year. At the end of the song, we all come together and rejoice having our music back.

“So that was definitely the most important song to me and it sounded amazing in the church we performed it in,” he added.

A 3-minute highlight video of the performances. Videos by Helen Canty Shick.

Mikolajczyk said over the years, it’s been fun to be part of the Hornell community and school when a sports team wins a championship and receives a parade with fire trucks, police and other first responders. The 95 students enjoyed that as well.

“I think that was really important. Sports teams come home from sectional championships and it’s nice to see the music program is also getting that type of recognition,” he said. “It gave me goosebumps to see that parade of cars who came to welcome us on our return.”

Interview with John Mikolajczyk.

Because of canceled trips during the pandemic, Mikolajczyk thanked the Hornell administration for making the trip happen and those who went above and beyond in the music program.

“No. 1 I would definitely thank Mr. van Leeuwen our director, he has so much passion for our program and for our students and for our success,” Mikolajczyk said. “He really pushes us  to be the best that we can. We have to thank Mr. Eric Prentice, our pianist, he is always the best on those keys! It’s really amazing. We haven’t been to one of these competitions in three years (because of the pandemic) so I have been missing this for a long time, So we are so fortunate to come home with so many Gold’s.”
At Hornell, van Leeuwen is also the preK to 12th grade music department chair. He has taken the students 14 times to Washington, D.C., and it has become more than just a music trip.

It was more than a music trip for the Hornell students.

“When we arrived, students visited Arlington National Cemetery where they were privileged to receive a military briefing from two members of “The Old Guard” and witnessed the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” vanLeeuwen said. “The Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stand watch 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in any weather. Sentinels, who volunteer for this post, are considered the elite of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), headquartered at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia. After members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment become ceremonially qualified, they are eligible to volunteer for duty as Sentinels at the Tomb. If accepted, they are assigned to Company E of The Old Guard. Each soldier must be in superb physical condition and possess an unblemished military record.”

The competition was held at the National City Christian Church.

The following day, the students went to the National Mall in downtown D.C. to take in the sights for almost five hours. While there, students were able to visit the following monuments and memorials, The Marine Corps War Memorial “Iwo Jima, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean War Memorial, FDR Memorial, MLK Memorial, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, WWII Memorial, The Capital Building, The White House and the Smithsonian Museum.

“Every time we travel and think we have reached our capacity of success, the next group reminds us that our capacity is limitless — that we are meant to continue on this journey of self exploration using music as our guide and resting pulse,” van Leeuwen said.

The songs performed were:

Senior High Choir: 1. The Last Words of David by Randall Thompson. 2. Hlohonolofatsa by South African Traditional. 3. The Awakening by Joseph Martin.

Treble Choir: 1. Heart, We Will Forget Him by Laura Farnell. 2. O Bella Fusa by Russell Robinson. 3. The Moon Is Distant From The Sea by David N. Childs.

Jazz Choir: 1. When I Fall In Love by Kirby Shaw. 2. Route 66 by ny Kirby Shaw.

Chamber Choir: 1. Ubi Caritas by Ola Gjelio. 2. Hold On To The Rock by Pepper Choplin.

Christopher J. van Leeuwen, the Hornell High School Director of Vocal Music, could finally lay down in the front and relax after the Gold-winning performances.

Do not expect Hornell to rest on these awards as Mikolajczyk, the president of the vocal music program, said he expects the program to continue at the world-class level as he graduates.

“I see a bright future, I think our band program is on the way up, our choral program is staying consistent with the success that we had,” Mikolajczyk said. “In past years, I thought ‘how are we going to fill the shoes of the seniors leaving?’ We really proved the younger students, we’ve cultivated them from 7th grade, we have so many successful musicians that even if 22 seniors are graduating out of the program, who were some of the best of the performers, we have people who will step in and fill the spots. We did it before, we will do it again. And there are plenty of students in the elementary schools who will step up and be just as successful as us. So I think there is a bright future for performing arts here at HHS.” 

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