BRUSH PRAIRIE — At a recent Hockinson High School band rehearsal, Band Director Corey McEnry, 32, wanted his students to listen back to part of a song they just played, but there was one problem.
He forgot to hit “record” on the band room’s sound system.
The students, and McEnry, all laughed when he realized his error, but it’s hard to blame him. Hockinson’s high-tech band room is still pretty new. The band room opened in the fall, and over winter break, the new sound system was installed.
Previous to this year, Hockinson’s band rehearsed in the auditorium or a classroom it shared with the drama program.
“We had a small room off the auditorium that was designated as the band room, but it was no bigger than a normal-sized classroom,” said McEnry, who has been the school’s band director since 2008. “It had 10-foot ceilings and brick walls all the way around. There was no way you could play anything in there. We couldn’t even fit a band in there, and even if we did, everybody’s ears would be bleeding by the end of it. It was so loud.”
McEnry said talks about a dedicated band room at the school date back to the school’s opening in 2003, but planning for the room picked up with the district’s $39.9 million bond measure, which voters passed in 2015. Using some of the bond money, the district built an addition onto the high school, where the band room is now located.
In addition to the dedicated band space, the room has enough lockers for the students to store their instruments, acoustical panels for deadening the sound, speakers throughout the room, microphones hanging from the ceiling centered over the musicians, four practice rooms, a jazz band room and the state-of-the-art sound system, which allows McEnry to record rehearsal and let students hear themselves immediately.
“It’s so nice to have that fast feedback,” said Dana Robertson, 17, a senior French horn and trumpet player. “Usually, I can only hear the instruments in my own section, but now we can hear how we all sound together.”
Senior Jesse Smith, 17, a tenor saxophone player, said the Hockinson band has historically had balancing issues, and getting to hear themselves rehearse as a whole helps with that.
The sound system also allows the band to practice for different environments. The band room has a Virtual Acoustical Environment system from Wenger, a Owatonna, Minn.-based company. The system picks up the students’ music and sends it through a processor in a closet in the band room, and comes back out through the speaker system in different settings. McEnry can set the system to sound like a tiny rehearsal space all the way up to a giant stadium.
“A big part of being a musician is knowing your space,” he said. “We will make adjustments everywhere we go based on the room.”
For the system, Wenger employees went around to different stock spaces across the country and took readings of what sound does in those spaces. For the Hockinson system, Wenger’s installation crew spent a few hours in the school’s auditorium and took readings of what sound does in there. That is now the “small auditorium” setting on the system in the band room, so McEnry’s students can rehearse in a setting that will sound like where they perform their concerts, such as their March 7 spring concert and their 10th annual Hockinson High School Benefit Dinner, Concert and Auction on March 25.
McEnry said the settings also allow the students to get a feel for what it will sound like to play in competitions in larger venues, such as the Clark College Jazz Festival at Gaiser Hall or the University of Portland Jazz Festival at Chiles Center.
“In the cathedral setting, when it was ringing really loud, the sound hangs in the air a little bit longer,” McEnry said. “It means they’re going to have to play a lot shorter, otherwise the sound gets really muddy and the clarity goes away. If we’re playing in the practice room setting, where it’s totally dead, notes go away as soon as you stop you playing them, so you might need to play notes a little bit longer.”
McEnry said that with the new band room, students are practicing more, partly because now there is a dedicated space for the program, so they don’t have to spend class time setting up furniture.
“In each of my classes, we would take about five minutes at the beginning of class to set up all of our chairs and stands, and then we’d take five minutes at the end of class to put them all away,” he said. “That’s 10 minutes a day. In a week, that’s one class period we were using to set up and tear down stuff. From an educational standpoint, the kids are getting more time to learn in this new facility.”
The new practice rooms are also bringing in students more frequently. In the past, practice rooms were closets where students could be fully heard.
“There were some days where, right next to our band room, they would use a classroom for state testing or AP tests,” he said. “The counselors would come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing AP tests today, could you guys not play in the practice rooms?’ During AP testing, we couldn’t practice.”
With the current room, he had to create a sign-up sheet because so many students were trying to get into the practice rooms.
McEnry also likes to call the new facility a “crowdsourced” band room. He met with an architect early in the process, and the architect drew up a sketch of the band room. McEnry said it felt off, so he posted a picture of it to a Facebook group made up of thousands of band directors across the country and asked for feedback. He received more than 200 responses in less than a day.
“I walked into our superintendent’s office and handed her the comments and said, ‘Here’s what America’s band directors think of the band room,'” McEnry said. “We both laughed about it, but then we went through and read them. The second draft of the band room was totally different.”
McEnry said the first design was smaller, had less storage space and didn’t have a separate jazz band room.
Throughout the process, district officials ran everything about the room by McEnry and made sure he was involved with the entire process, which is not a luxury most band directors have when a school designs a new band room, he said.
“It was unlike any other experience most other band directors have, and I know that,” McEnry said. “That speaks volumes to the support that our district gives our program, which in the day and age of the arts often being on the chopping block, really speaks to the values of the district and the values of the community.”