How the CSULB Wind Symphony’s performance at the Kennedy Center was the experience of a lifetime

Published April 3, 2024
CSULB Wind Symphony in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall
The CSULB Wind Symphony performs in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on March 10.

Growing up in Southern California, CSULB student Jennifer Sosa had never visited the East Coast before. And she had never set foot – let alone performed – in a venue as large or majestic as the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 

Both dreams came true for the third-year music education and performance student who traveled last month to Washington, D.C., with CSULB’s Bob Cole Conservatory Wind Symphony. The ensemble was invited to perform for the Kennedy Center’s 2024 Sousa Band Festival, and it was a first for the Wind Symphony as well. 

“I was in shock the first time I walked in,” said Sosa, who plays the euphonium, a brass, tuba-like instrument. “I couldn't believe that I was standing there and that I was going to perform in that legendary hall. It was so crazy to think that I would get to share my passion for music on that stage. Getting to play in a hall that prestigious is honestly life changing, because I never thought I’d play in a place like that.” 

CSULB Wind Symphony perform in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Sosa was among 51 Wind Symphony students who just had the trip and performance of a lifetime: Being invited to play at the Kennedy Center, one of the country’s most distinguished performance venues. The CSULB Wind Symphony was one of only four bands from across the country to participate in the Sousa Band Festival, celebrating the life and influence of American composer John Philip Sousa. They were also the only collegiate band to perform. 

“The trip was amazing,” said Erin Sercel, a third-year clarinetist in the Wind Symphony. “Not only did we do the Kennedy Center performance, but we had a couple of clinics with veteran conductors. It was great getting to hear their advice, their expertise. We went sightseeing on the National Mall and the seniors laid a wreath at the Martin Luther King (Jr.) Memorial. It was an amazing trip all around.” 

The Wind Symphony performed five pieces during the March 10 Sousa Festival, including “Cosmic Escapades” by Vincent Oppido, “Early Light” by Carolyn Bremmer, former chair of the CSULB music department, and “Hands Across the Sea” by Sousa. 

“The students were incredible,” said Jermie Arnold, director of bands and director of the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. “They were the only group who received an immediate and unanimous standing ovation.” 

The Kennedy Center is considered iconic in the arts community. Artists ranging from Leonard Bernstein to Aretha Franklin to U2 have graced the Kennedy Center stage. Each year, the Kennedy Center Honors recognize lifetime achievements and contributions to American culture. “To have our students numbered among those artists who have performed on that stage in incredible!” Arnold said. 

CSULB Wind Symphony students explore museums in Washington, D.C.
CSULB Wind Symphony students explore the U.S. Capitol Building during a tour in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the Kennedy Center performance, the students explored the nation’s capital, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam, World War II and Korean War memorials, the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the African American History Museum and important Sousa sites, including his grave. At the National Archives, they saw original versions of the Star-Spangled Banner flag, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. 

They also experienced private clinics with Col. Dennis M. Layendecker, former commander and conductor of the U.S. Air Force Band, and with veteran conductors Mark Camphouse and Anthony Maiello at George Mason University, who just happen to be former instructors of Arnold’s. 

“They were some of the most kind and awesome people I’ve ever worked with,” said James Gaudi, a third-year trumpet player. “I definitely see where Dr. Arnold came from.” 

They enjoyed performances by the Joint Armed Forces Band, and got the chance to share meals and bowl together on the last night.  

“Getting the ensemble outside the bubble of the university, and to see how each other worked chemistry-wise in a different environment – that was a very educational experience,” said Julianne Fung, a third-year bassoonist. “We had this sense of community, and everyone got closer.”

CSULB Wind Symphony students in Washington, D.C.

Funds for the trip were raised by the music department, through a Beachfunder campaign, and through efforts by the College of the Arts dean, Royce W. Smith, who accompanied the Wind Symphony. A story on KABC-TV on the trip and fundraising effort helped boost the cause.  

“The donors who contributed to this journey have made dreams come true,” Smith said. “Musicians always envision themselves on prestigious and storied stages – being able to share their incredible talents with diverse audiences. Our donors showed our students that dreams are a function of collaboration – of people believing in what we do and sharing some of their fortune so that others can soar.” 

Alex Martin flies on a plane for the first time
Alex Martin, a trumpet player for the CSULB Wind Symphony, flew on a plane for the first time during the trip to D.C.

Sosa, the euphonium player who also holds the second chair on the Wind Symphony, said this trip helped instill confidence in her family that she would be OK pursuing her musical passions. She hopes to become a music educator and conductor some day. 

“When I was growing up, my family always saw (music) as a hobby. ‘No, you can’t do music as your job,’” said Sosa, who is the first in her entire extended family to attend a university. “Now they’ve seen my growth and passion and opportunities that I’ve gotten, and they’re definitely on board with it. They’re still over the moon.” 

COTA Dean Smith said he was impressed by the Wind Symphony’s performance and hopes this appearance at the Kennedy Center will help pave the way for more in the future.  

COTA Dean Royce W. Smith conducts the Wind Symphony during rehearsals
COTA Dean Royce W. Smith conducts the Wind Symphony during rehearsals.