When the National Association for Music Education honors concert band performs at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville next week, Hillsboro High School senior Allison Gray and her French horn will be there.
Her journey to Nashville started in fifth grade, when Allison says she wanted to be different.
“All the girls were wanting to play the clarinet and the flute, and so I didn’t want to do those because everyone else was doing it,” she said.
While she was different from her peers, her choice of French horn was in concert with other family members.
“My mom played the French horn, and my brother picked it up when he was in middle school, but he never followed through with it,” Allison said.
French horns have a reputation in music circles for being difficult to play, but Allison said it wasn’t hard in middle school because she was just playing along with the band.
That changed as she started getting better.
“Once I started getting serious about it and practicing it, it was like, ‘This instrument is really hard,’” she said. “I don’t think I actually got frustrated until I started getting good at it. Before I was good, I didn’t know how bad I was.”
Practice began in earnest when Allison’s parents hired French horn player and former band director Shana Stepanek to provide her instruction.
“I don’t think I ever practiced in middle school,” Allison said. “I practice a lot more in high school. I do lessons once a week, sometimes twice a week when I get closer to things I have to audition for.”
What’s helped with practice the past two years is owning her own French horn. She’d been using one the school provided, which meant lugging it back and forth between school and home. For her birthday last year, her parents took her horn shopping.
“The horn I used at school wasn’t bad, but once I got my own horn it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really good,’” she said. “It was a big difference; it’s just a lot easier to play.”
She qualified for state band her sophomore year, which also made her eligible for the NAFME honors band, but she chose not to apply.
HHS band instructor Bruce Major influenced her decision after a repeat performance with state band this past spring.
“Mr. Major said, ‘I think you should apply for this, you should try doing a tape for this,’” Allison said.
Allison’s father turned their living room into a sound and video studio, and they did multiple takes in an hour-long recording session. They chose the best one, sent it in, and waited.
It took about a month before she received any word, and since her expectations were low, she was only slightly nervous when she thought about it.
Then came the email.
“I remember there was this one that said ‘Congratulations’ on it,” Allison said “I clicked it, I skimmed it, I read it; then I was running up the stairs to tell my parents.”
Allison will spend three days in rehearsals with 150 peers preparing four pieces. She said in her experience, directors have often had a “do-your-own-thing” attitude when it comes to the horn section, but she anticipates more scrutiny from a director of a national-level band.
She’ll be on her own for the trip, rooming with three other band members she doesn’t know. She could run into a familiar face or two among other Kansas state band members that made the cut.
Naturally, she expects the performance at the Grand Ole Opry to be the highlight.
“Not that the place in Wichita where we do state isn’t cool, but the Grand Ole Opry, people know what that is,” Allison said. “That’s part of the reason why it makes me nervous, too, because it’s real, it’s big, and it’s like, ‘What do I do,’ because I’ve never done it before.”
Allison hopes to continue playing at one of several private liberal arts colleges she’s considering, and said she thought the experience and the name-recognition of the venue could bolster her chances of doing so.