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Saipan “Cinderella” Band Takes Gold at Guam’s 2008 Tumon Bay Music Festival; Invited to Perform at 2008 Olympics in Beijing

Saipan Students Going to China 
Photo courtesy of Principal Peter Le'au

Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, MP magazine (May 2008): When Wil Dewitt stands in front of his classes for the first time each school year, the students at Saipan Southern High School are presented with a new world of possibilities in music and life. Mr. “D”, as he is affectionately called, first introduces the students to the 7 essential elements of music and then to the hopes he carries for them as young men and women. His objective is rather simple, that they will be equipped to play an instrument, read music, identify good tone quality, but more importantly, should they ever need to, that they will have acquired enough skills before they leave his class to tap in to their love of music throughout their lifetime.

Originally from Ohio, Wil and his wife, Lois, have called Saipan their home since 1993. They have three children and are both educators in the CNMI Public School System. With a degree in music and theology, Dewitt has taught since 2000. At the newly built Saipan Southern High School, where he was transferred to from Marianas High School, he began the process of establishing a brand new music program. In a few years time, he has taken his band class and catapulted it to new levels of success that extend beyond the campus walls.

Saipan Southern High School Manta Band

Sitting across a picnic table with his daughter Emily, he explains that despite his particularly reserved appearance, he is an emotional person. "Music" he explains, "allows me to express that side of me". It has also made this 6 foot 6 inch conductor one of the most dynamic teachers the Public School System has seen.

When asked what he loves the most about his job, he says it is watching the students be transformed by the power of music. "Poetry is great, other pursuits are great, but with music there is a special part of the brain that is affected…" He has watched students from various backgrounds and home situations discover a talent that may have been overlooked had it not been for band. He believes that music motivates students to turn the corner, and he seems to have plenty of company who agree.

The Manta Band has become an integral part of Saipan Southern High's identity. In an era of school reform where districts are facing enormous pressure to demonstrate high academic achievement, the Manta Band has managed to remain a priority. It is an unfortunate reality that many schools mistakenly sacrifice the arts in pursuit of academic success. However, with the support of the island community and school administrators such as Principal Pete Le'au and Vice Principal Craig Garrison, the band class has continued to thrive.

Pride in the band was extended more than ever to the entire community when they took the challenge to represent the Commonwealth in a recent competition on Guam for the first time. The school's unwavering commitment to the arts was rewarded by a glorious win at the 2008 Tumon Bay Music Festival on Guam in March. The Manta Band garnered an unprecedented score of 290 out 300, which earned them the Gold Award. Later, they were informed that they had obtained the highest ever rating in the history of the festival. When Dewitt was asked what went through his mind, he answered humbly, "I was in shock. I still haven't absorbed all of it". He always felt they had a good chance of winning, having judged the competition the previous year, but chose to remain cautiously optimistic considering the circumstances.

The majority of students who competed on Guam had less than 18 months to a few years of experience, which put them at a clear disadvantage with their competitors who had been playing since the 4th or 5th grade. Nevertheless, they set their sights on coming home with a trophy and started practicing in August 2007.

"The repertoire", according to Dewitt, "was set in place for most of the school year". They began grueling daily practices in January '08, always early in the morning before school began. The students themselves proposed the 6:00 a.m. practice schedule despite being teenagers in need of rest. It all paid off though when they bested 30 groups of all genres and came home with the title of Best Musical Group Overall as well as Best in Show. The young musicians went head to head against other high school bands, orchestras, choirs, jazz groups and their own fears. "We made our mistakes", he shares, and "in fact one student was sobbing so hard because she thought her mistake may have cost us the gold". In the end, their perseverance and hard work paid off. The trophy they carried on the plane was much taller than most of the kids in the band, but arguably not as grand as the pride that exuded from their triumphant victory.

A new challenge is always around the corner, this time in the form of a monumental invitation for 15 chosen student musicians to play for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing this August. It is yet another great opportunity to showcase the musical talent that comes from their tiny island (Saipan) in the Pacific.

But, what sets the band apart? What makes them stand out from other high school bands? According to Dewitt, it is realizing they are not without flaws. "It's not about being perfect. It's about communicating the emotion of the music to the audience". At first, Dewitt was apprehensive about introducing classical music, thinking that maybe the young teens would not take to it, but found surprisingly that they too were drawn to the music. How does one teach students to appreciate something more than modern rap or rock and roll? Dewitt shares about a particular piece that moved everyone, "With Each Sunset Comes the Promise of A New Day which is about a friend losing another friend in the Iraq War, but still finding hope in life. It is a juxtaposition of sadness and hope. As they learned it, the kids had to think about what they'd personally lost. "They were all able to connect". He adds, "What sets them apart is that they play with emotion, not just technical proficiency".

Within a few minutes of speaking to Dewitt, one soon finds that it is more than just the music instruction that truly sets them apart. It is also undeniably the caliber of teacher that has transformed these students from within.

He modestly attributes the success of the band to the overwhelming support they have received from the community and school. He understands that times are tough and is grateful for the overwhelming outpouring of support. He quickly points out that the Principal Le'au and Vice Principal Garrison need to be recognized for their dedication to keeping the school band a priority. "They are the reason it exists", he states. "They never wavered in their support". There are many who agree with him, but who will add that this dynamic teacher is as much of, if not the largest factor in their accomplishments.

It is apparent that there is more than just the sound of beautiful music resonating from the walls of Mr. Wil Dewitt's band class at Saipan Southern High School. There is the unmistakable harmony of hearts being carried on the winds by the students themselves and the teacher who brought music to life and life to their music.