Xander Dawson is a senior at Charles O. Dickerson High School. He recently participated in the NYSSMA 2021 All-State Winter Conference in Rochester, NY. The trip to All-State is a long journey which includes many hours of practice, a performance, an adjudication, a score of 98 to 100, and an invitation to participate. Dawson completed all of the steps and became first chair of the saxophone section. He is the son of Scott and Amy Dawson of Trumansburg.
It all began in March of 2021 at the NYSSMA Festival where, after practicing many hours, Dawson submitted a solo piece virtually for adjudication. He played a Level 6 piece entitled Heiden Sonata for Alto Saxophone. He also submitted audition pieces for clarinet, piano, and voice, but alto saxophone is his main instrument. After a month, Dawson received a score of 100 for his efforts on the saxophone. He then applied for All-State and was informed in August that he had been accepted and was named the principal player for the saxophone section which meant that Dawson played solos where required. There were eight musicians in his section.
Dawson received the music and had four months to practice on his own, but with support from high school band director Hope Lewis and his saxophone teacher. Eventually, he had to submit recordings of his playing so he could be placed in a chair position. The complete band played the National Anthem, “Full Circle” by Viet Cuong, “Rest,” and “Paris Sketches.” “I didn’t mind working so much on my own,” Dawson remarked. “I was used to doing things virtually, working with a microphone, and setting up everything to get the best sound.”
The All-State Conference was held Dec. 2 to 5 in Rochester. On Thursday, Dec. 2, Dawson arrived at the Holiday Inn where practices were held in the ballroom. The final concert was scheduled for Sunday morning in the Kodak Theater at the Eastman School of Music. After settling in and meeting his roommate, a boy from Long Island who played the French horn, the first rehearsal began at 4 p.m. “It was truly magical when we got to play together,” said Dawson. “We ran through all of the songs and it was really great!” The whole concert band was 150 musicians strong who traveled to Rochester from all over the state. The conductor was Dr. Mickelson from Ohio State.
On Friday, the musicians had eight hours of rehearsal. Later in the day, everyone went to the Riverside Convention Center for the All-State Convention where the high school musicians got to try all kinds of instruments, talk to representatives from various colleges, and meet other people. Meals were taken back at the Holiday Inn and Dawson said that the food was very good.
Saturday morning, everyone was bused to the Eastman School for a dress rehearsal. The finished pieces were played and the music reverberated throughout the Kodak Theater. The sound was amazing! Then, back to the Holiday Inn for more rehearsal. That night, after dinner, a dance was held with an ice cream social. “It was fun to see how similar we all were and how we geek out over the same stuff,” Dawson said. “It was a great thing that we all had different musical backgrounds and could see all of the different interpretations.”
Sunday morning was the final concert. Dawson had been on his own all weekend, until his parents came for the concert. He had solos as the principal player. “Sketches has a fractured sax piece that blends together in polysonic sound,” Dawson explained. After the concert, he went home and slept for three hours because he was so tired. Then he did his homework, went back to bed, and got up the next morning for school.
Dawson’s favorite part of the whole weekend was when the band was playing “Rest” because the middle is so intense. “There were tears in everyone’s eyes. It was so emotional playing with people who are as intense about music as I am. I will remember this for a long time,” Dawson mused. “Dr. Mickelson, our conductor, was a joy to work with. He called us musicians instead of students. He also commissioned ‘Rest’ in memory of his father which brought a personal touch to make it a great weekend.”
After graduation from high school in June, Dawson plans to study musical performance with woodwind doubling in clarinet, flute, and additional instruments. He has applied and auditioned for Berklee School of Music and hopes to hear if he was accepted in January. He also applied to SUNY Potsdam, NYU, Boston Conservatory, and Eastman School of Music. Dawson also wants to minor in Music Business and has already received a certificate in theory, harmony, and ear training from Berklee where he took a virtual course.
During the pandemic when school was closed or on a hybrid schedule, Dawson created different musical arrangements which he posted on Facebook. He would make arrangements as they came to him and use different concepts to create a final piece. Dawson would play all of the parts and then use ArtPro and LogicPro to create the final product on video. His first was a Monsters, Inc, saxophone quartet where he played all four parts. More recently, Dawson wrote all of the music for the high school play “Alice in Wonderland.”
Sophomores and juniors will be gearing up for the next NYSSMA Festival in March of 2022. Dawson has words of wisdom for them as they begin their journey. “Don’t be afraid to take risks. Go for it! I felt connected to the piece I played. Have fun with it because you will practice for months. And … remember why you like to make music.”