For GRPS music teacher Peyton Berce, the chance to return to his alma mater with his GRPS students was a highlight of the fall.

The event was the Middle School Honor Band at Western Michigan University, where Berce earned his bachelor’s degree in Instrumental Music Education and Oboe Performance in 2021 after completing an associate degree in music at Grand Rapids Community College.

Although the day was long (it began with a first rehearsal at 9 am and finished with a 7 pm performance), Berce and a quintet of eighth grade GRPS students -- Audrey Parcher, Myah Beattie and Christopher Aiello from Harrison Park Academy, plus Elliot Beresford and Ari McDonald from CA Frost Environmental Science Academy -- said they enjoyed every minute of it.

“I was so happy that I was there,” Aiello said. “It was so fun. It was like I won a trophy by being there."

Meanwhile, Beattie was impressed by conductor Brian Balmages.

"I liked how funny he was,” she said. “Also, I didn't really feel ready before we went, but after working with him I definitely felt ready."

Parcher said the same. “There were so many different instruments and parts, and we all sounded so much better at the end of the day than at the beginning."

Berce, who serves the district directing bands at both Harrison Park Academy and Ottawa Hills High School, loved to hear his students’ responses to the event.

 “I love my students,” he said. “I expect their best, and I love that they demand my best as well.”

The recent event at WMU fits right into those mutual expectations, Berce added.

“For decades, honor bands like this one have been a mainstay of music education in the United States,” he said. “They allow select students to spend a whole day receiving high-level music education on a college campus. It is a distinguished opportunity for any developing musician. I was especially excited because this year's honor band was conducted by Brian Balmages. Not only is he a world-class composer, but the Harrison Park eighth-grade band is actually rehearsing one of his compositions right now.”

Berce said that much like an all-star sports team, honor bands are composed of musicians from many schools. The 2023 version at WMU included nominees from 80-plus schools, each of which was able to send only two or three of its most advanced students.

To prepare for the event, Berce had Harrison Park's three nominees spend several weeks practicing five pieces of music in addition to their regular classwork. On the day of the rehearsal and performance at WMU, they continued to hone instrumental techniques and leadership skills that Berce said will benefit both themselves and their classmates in years to come.

“I believe that music and the arts are absolutely essential to a well-rounded education,” he said. “Music education has been shown time and again to enhance motor skills, vocabulary, reasoning and development of social skills. In addition, most careers demand skills in critical thinking, collaboration and high-level literacy. Music helps us develop all of these.”

Beyond the practical, he added, “the arts open us up to experience truth and beauty in a unique way.”

“They nurture habits of reflection, patience and personal expression that we all desperately need in our lives. Our scholars deserve to experience ‚Äčtruth and beauty, and as GRPS music educators my colleagues and I work alongside our students to find lifelong joy in music-making.”

Former Harrison Park principal Heather Thompson (now a superintendent in New Lothrop) fully agrees.

“Music has always been a large part of Harrison,” she said. “Last year we started running middle school clubs to give our scholars more opportunities in the arts, and they fell in love with all of it. The Honors Band was an amazing opportunity for our scholars, one that would have never happened without all of the hard work from the scholars and Mr. Berce getting our music program to where it is at.”

GRPS Honor Band concert members

L-R: Ari McDonald (CA Frost), Elliot Beresford (CA Frost), Myah Beattie (Harrison Park), Audrey Parcher (Harrison Park), and Christopher Aiello (Harrison Park)