District ensembles: next step for students in Haven’s music program

A look inside what it’s like to participate in a district ensemble and what it means to the students who attend.


Quinten Saylor '25

Musicians perform at district orchestra

Quinten Saylor '25, Contributor

What would happen if a handful of the best musicians from schools in the district joined together to perform a concert of moving music? Well, PMEA districts does exactly that and has been serving as a place for these musicians to let their talents flourish for decades.

PMEA (Pennsylvania Music Educators Association) hosts three different ensembles: District band, for winds, brass, and percussion. District orchestra, for mostly string instruments. And finally, district chorus for vocalists. 

Generally, in all district ensembles, students audition to join in the fall. If they earn a spot, they will travel to a nearby school in late winter where they will practice music for two days straight. On the third and final day, the students’ hard work is put on display in a concert for parents.

District ensembles have been around for decades, and Strath Haven’s band director, Mr. Pignataro, has supported this activity ever since he stepped foot into the music program. Today, he is able to give the students the opportunity to attend these district ensembles. This year, about twenty students participated in at least one ensemble. 

“Students get to actually learn famous classical repertoire and they get to work with world-class conductors and clinicians which is something that is above and beyond enriching,” Pignataro said. “You also get to meet people from other schools and these are the very people you’re going to be going to the workforce with and going to college with, so it’s like great music, and meeting other people.”

Auditioning and getting selected to go to one of the district ensembles is one thing, but actually going to a nearby school and spending hours on stage and learning music has its own challenges. Pignataro often visits the ensembles when they are practicing.

“I personally like seeing my students grow from when we drop them off on audition day, then I usually visit the next day to see how rehearsal is going, and then at the end, they’re exhausted, but I like how musically they’ve grown as an ensemble,” he said. “I like that I know that they’re up there on the stage, grueling, but they’re working together and building camaraderie.”

Sophomore Wendy Chen was one of the five Strath Haven students to attend district orchestra. She found the audition process to be quite stress-free.

“They give you the audition material near the beginning of June and then you have like three or four months to work on it for your audition in October,” Chen said. “It’s really nice because it’s online so you get to record all your excerpts separately, you get to do as many takes as you’d like, which gives you a lot of opportunities to put forth the best audition you can.”

But out of everything, for Chen, being able to bond with other students was what made the countless hours of practicing the violin worthwhile.

“The people really make it or break it, and the people that I met were really awesome,” she said. “Honestly, they’re just like anyone you would meet at  school or something, except you’re all struggling to get through the same thing.”

Chen’s exceptional performance at district orchestra compelled the judges to select her to continue on to regional orchestra where she plans to further continue improving her violin skills.

Throughout high school, senior Dae Taylor has participated in plenty of the festivals PMEA offers. But even after going to the same event year after year, he still finds each one to be unique.

“My favorite thing about districts is probably just the new experience that it brings every single time,” Taylor said. “Often the guest conductors they have are really cool to play and work under. It’s interesting to kind of experience other conducting styles, other rehearsals directing styles, and to just be exposed to kind of a new experience.”

Taylor believes that it’s worth joining a district ensemble not just for the experience of meeting new people, but also because those same people can drive one to grow as a musician.

“District bands are a really cool opportunity because it’s a very competitive group,” he said. “You’re playing with people all around you where everyone is the same level as you or better than you. That’s the best way to get better as a musician, by playing with people who are better than you.”