Bankenbush performs with National Honor Band
February 23, 2023
Sundance High School junior and talented flautist Branson Bankenbush traveled to Iowa this weekend to perform with the National Honor Band. The event is an opportunity to showcase the top-performing high school musicians in the United States.
The process of being selected for the band was one surprise after another, he says, starting when his teacher, Teresa Preisner, let him know that she'd put his name forward.
Next came the audition piece, for which Preisner told him she had selected a video of a piccolo solo of "Stars and Stripes" that he'd performed a little while ago.
"She didn't tell me if I was going to make it in or not. She didn't tell me anything until the Christmas concert," he says.
At that concert, Preisner announced that Bankenbush had been selected to participate in the band.
"In front of everybody!" he says.
After the Christmas break, he was asked to perform a scale and two excerpts in order to gauge his strengths and select his chair placement.
"I got flute two," he says. "Then, two or three weeks before we actually left, I got the music. I looked at it maybe three times."
As an auditory learner, he says, he does better learning by playing than by reading the music. And so, he decided to wait.
"I'm a firm believer that, if you do it last minute, it only takes a minute to do," says the quick-witted musician. "And I did, I learned all the music really quick! And I think I did pretty good."
Kidding aside, Bankenbush says he was able to form an idea of what was needed ahead of time, but it was being in the presence of his peers that helped him understand the nuances of the music.
The band had one full day to practice together, along with a couple of short sessions on the evening of arrival and the morning of the concert.
Fortunately, he says, he does pretty well under pressure and he wasn't alone in feeling nervous – his new friends and bandmates had done a similar amount of preparation, so, "We were all just anxious together".
The first piece the band played was "Down East Fanfare". Not Bankenbush's favorite, he says, as there's a lot happening within the music.
"An American Elegy is a piece honoring the people who died in the Columbine shooting," he says of the second on the set list. "That one was really pretty, I loved that one."
Next up was "Trail of Tears", which he also appreciated, followed by a march, which he enjoyed because, he says, "I got to play really fast and loud". Finally, the band played "Illumination", a piece about how music brings everyone together.
All were lyrical pieces, he says, which was a challenge.
"You have to put a lot of emotion into those pieces, especially 'An American Elegy'," he says.
Two bands performed at the concert: the symphonic and the wind symphony. Obviously, he jokes, the latter was the better of the two.
"This was the best band I've ever played with, because it's so nice to be in a band with people who love the music as much as you do," he says.
"I really liked being in a room with people who really cared about the music and wanted to do really well, but I also liked the breaks between practice."
Those were the times he could get to know his fellow bandmates. It was easy to make friends, he says, building on the common interest that first brought them all to Iowa.
One thing he did learn, he notes, is that musicians make bad dancers. Nobody did well during the swing dance class that was arranged as an activity for the band during breaks, but Bankenbush admits that he in particular failed to distinguish himself.
"I did have someone point at me and laugh when I stepped on my own foot," he says.
Though Bankenbush has proven his talent with the flute, it nearly didn't happen.
"In fifth grade when we were picking instruments, I wanted to start with flute because it's a really pretty instrument, and it looks easy," he says. On that last point, of course, he later found out that, "Is it? No, it is not."
His parents, however, suggested that he try the saxophone instead for his first instrument. The flute had to wait for another year.
At that point, Bankenbush decided he wanted to learn more instruments, and so he went back to the one that attracted his attention in the first place.
"The summer before seventh grade I picked it up and was like, I'm a guy playing flute. I've got to be good at this," he quips. "I worked on it very hard and I like to tell myself I've become a very good player."
A lot of Branson's learning is self-led, though he says Preisner has been an invaluable help.
"Any time I need help with something, she's very willing to work with me on stuff, like technique work or even on just the pieces," he says.
"It's really nice to have a teacher who supports what I'm doing and wants me to get better."
The National Honor Band convened in Sioux Center, Iowa. The concert itself took place at Dordt University, which Bankenbush was rather taken with.
"It's a beautiful campus – the BJ Haan Auditorium is gorgeous," he says. Even so, his heart is set on the University of Wyoming for his own graduation plans.
A junior right now, Bankenbush plans to continue playing and hopes to join the marching program and concert band when he reaches UW.
"I'm not longer going to pursue music like I'd originally planned, but I still want to keep going with it," he says.
In the meantime, he hopes to audition again for the national honor band next year.
"For as long as the days were, and as long as the practices were, it was really fun and I'd do it again in a heartbeat," he says.