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Riverwatch Middle School band performs in Charleston
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SOUTH FORSYTH -- A group of musically inclined middle schoolers took quite the field trip last week when they traveled to Charleston, S.C., to perform for some of the top band directors in the region.

The Riverwatch Symphonic Band was one of just two middle schools to participate in the National Band Association and College Band Directors National Association 2016 Southern Division Conference. The band brought 88 students to perform at the Gaillard Center of Performing Arts.

Since 2008, the band program at the school on James Burgess Road in south Forsyth has grown from 135 students to more than 550 in sixth-eighth grades, according to Matt Koperniak, the school’s band director.

“It’s a neat experience for the students,” he said. “They’re performing for a very knowledgeable audience of basically the college band directors for colleges throughout the southeastern U.S. They get to play music we might not play otherwise.”

Riverwatch is one of two middle schools — the other was Lovinggood Middle School west of Marietta — in the region to be chosen for the conference based on a recording of its music.

Four high schools — three in Florida and one in South Carolina — and eight colleges also performed.

“With a performance like this, it allows them to play very challenging music for a very appreciate audience and, at the same time, take a trip that opens up their world view,” Koperniak said.

“Maybe 10 kids have been to Charleston before. So they’re getting to see an historic city they’ve never seen before and, at the same time, play great music at a very high level.”

Koperniak, assistant band director Dean Patterson and their students are not newcomers to recognition.

In 2015, they were featured on NPR’s Strike up the Band, were named a 2015 Commended Winner in the National Wind Band Honors program and performed at the University of Georgia.

“For many years Riverwatch band students have been well-represented within Georgia’s All-State Band,” said Principal Kathy Carpenter. “This performance is a culminating activity that showcases hard work, sacrifices and efforts of not only the students but also their parents.”

In 2014, the band performed at the University of Alabama and at the National Concert Festival in Indianapolis, Ind.

“Being a member of the Riverwatch Middle School band is quite a commitment,” Carpenter said. “These students spend time in class for rehearsals, as well as practices before and after school, not to mention the individual commitment they make to practice daily at home.”

They can handle the pressure, too.

“If they were nervous, they haven’t told me,” Koperniak said. “This particular group features more soloists than we’ve ever featured in the history of our program.

“So a lot of seventh- and eighth-graders find themselves in very high-pressured situations. They’re mature and they handle it very well, and I’m very proud of them.”

And they are efficient enough with their time to keep school in mind.

“The performance [was] Thursday afternoon, so we spent the night in Charleston and [saw] the city,” Koperniak said. “We [came] back to be in class on Friday.”