Portage student wins top honor at state music festival with original marimba composition

May 10, 2018 GMT

Hannah Ness spent a year perfecting “Frolicking Tadpoles” on the marimba.

The Portage High School sophomore spent her whole summer writing it, then she spent the whole school year practicing it, and in last month’s Wisconsin State Solo and Ensemble Festival, the hard work paid off.

Her marimba solo won an Exemplary Performance Recognition Award.

“Somebody told me congratulations, but I really didn’t know what for,” Ness said in the school’s band room Monday. “When they told me, I couldn’t believe it.”

Her Exemplary Award means the judge who scored Ness at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on April 28 believed her work was the best he’d seen for the entire day, said Tom Shaver, the school’s band director. A typical judge listens to one piece every 10 minutes and judges for eight hours in the day.

The Exemplary Award is the sixth for Portage High School since Shaver started teaching in the district in 2004.

“She picked a good title because you can visualize what’s happening,” Shaver said of the sophomore’s piece, which was considered Class A, the hardest level. “It’s a playful composition.”

“Frolicking Tadpoles” has three movements. The opening notes travel up and down the marimba, written to sound like water or rolling waves, Ness explained. Then she uses minor notes — perhaps a contemplation period, sounding less happy — before concluding the piece in a flourish.

“There’s a sort of resolution when it ends very fast and upbeat,” Ness said.

Ness didn’t write “Frolicking Tadpoles” standing at her marimba, deciding instead to first notate the music on her computer before learning how to play it, which felt like starting over, she said.

“The process was pretty difficult. That’s why it took so long” to perfect it, she said.

The marimba is similar to the xylophone. It is typically 6 feet long and has bars made of wood. Ness has played the instrument for about four years, crediting her skills for it to playing the piano since she was 5.

“I was drawn to it in middle school because I knew how to play it,” she said of the keys, which are laid out the same as a piano. Her stick techniques came later, she said.

“You can play it using a lot of different mallets. There are people who start with two and then get to four, and I’ve seen people play with six or three mallets in each hand. So there are a lot of different levels to the marimba, which I think is really cool. There are always ways to excel.”

Ness hasn’t yet determined if she’ll pursue a career in music after high school, but she didn’t rule it out.

“I definitely want to keep music as a large part of my life,” she said.

Shaver estimated about 80 schools traveled to the state competition at UW-Whitewater, involving about 115 students from Portage.

“It’s difficult because you can’t have any flaws or hiccups,” Shaver said of state solo and ensemble competitions. “You need to play perfectly. It’s the truest assessment of your ability.”