Superior Singing: 7th & 8th Grade Chorus and Band Knock it Out of the Parks

Danny Stock

Last week during Hershey Park’s Music in the Parks Festival, GDS’s 7th and 8th Grade Chorus was awarded a “Superior Rating” on their way to winning the competition. The two judges awarded them a score of 92/100—the first time breaking into the “Superior” range in their four years participating in the festival. The rating eclipsed the GDS chorus’s previous best rating of 88 (“Excellent Rating”), which was achieved in a year not beset by restrictions on performing arts due to COVID-19 safety measures. Their first piece, “Tshotsholoza: South African Freedom Song,” featured soloists Iman McNeil ’26 and Oliver Malkin ’26, who was also named “Best Overall Vocalist” in the festival. Their second piece, “I Believe” by Mark A. Miller, featured soloists Sarah Sakr ‘26, Zuri Jones ‘26, and Violet Ikenberry ‘26. 

The 7th and 8th Grade Band received an “Excellent Rating” of 85 and finished second in the competition. In the history of GDS’s participation in the festival, the band, under the direction of Sasha Soper, has won on three occasions and finished second now twice. This is also the third win for the chorus.

LMS choral director and arts department chair Keith Hudspeth led the chorus all year and conducted during the adjudicated performance. Keith explained that work began in the late fall of 2021 to “identify what students could do well with their voices” so that he could “select a repertoire to showcase those strengths.“ He also sought two contrasting pieces in terms of sound, mood, and technicality to highlight the versatility of the Middle School singers. 

COVID-19 shut down all on-campus singing for 2020, and when singing returned in early 2021, it was masked, distanced, and outdoors, where the wind carried away student voices…and their sheet music. Band practices were held in the garage until fall 2021 and wind instrumentalists used specially fitted filters for nearly all of this year. Even when singing moved indoors, singers had to be distanced and face a single direction. LMS music teachers like Keith, Sasha, John Barnes, Regina La Valley, and Heather Philips had to rethink what music instruction could be and how to work with students. For Keith and John, this also meant spending nearly an hour per day rearranging chairs between classes. Though vocal music safety measures continue, 2022 has seen the scaling back of distancing and, to a lesser extent, masking.

 John said, “Anyone in education knows that the past few years have been rough, but for music teachers, in particular, the past two years were constant triage mode to keep our programs alive. I’m so proud of Keith, Sasha, and these kids for all that they have achieved despite online ‘music making,’ only singing/playing outside for a year, and performing with masks six feet apart.”

Practicing in so many locations, however, has led students to develop flexibility in the ways they listen to each other and project their voices in various spaces, Keith explained. That flexibility allowed them to step onto the festival stage for the first time and quickly adjust their singing to the acoustics of the room. If there’s any silver lining to COVID-era music, it’s this. 

“Receiving a Superior Rating from judges that don’t know us does so much to validate the hard work we’ve all been putting in,” Keith said. “It’s a validation of the time we’ve spent reimagining our programs [due to COVID]. It reaffirms for us that the students can still come together around music and that, after everything, the program is still there.”

The band performed “Finale, Symphony #1” by Brahms and “Denbridge Way” composed by James Swearingen. “I told the students I thought it was the best they played all year,” Sasha said. “They also received a couple of 9/10s (Superior Rating)—in rhythmic quality and intonation. One of the judges noted that the band sounded older than they were. The preparation paid off and they played their best at the time they needed to play their best.”

In his email congratulating the singers, Keith said, “I know that I have been more intense in my demands for focus and excellence recently, but your hard work in doing so paid off with recognition from our judges. I am very proud of you! . . . Achieving a ‘Superior’ score was my goal for us. Though winning is not the most important, it does make things feel better!”

Congratulations 7th & 8th Grade Chorus and Band!

Listen to “Tshotsholoza: South African Freedom Song” and “I Believe.”

View the recordings and leave a comment on GDS Facebook or Instagram


  • Accolades
  • Arts
  • Middle School
  • Music