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Free State student invited to National Youth Wind Ensemble, prestigious youth band experience

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Trumpeter Keith Popiel said he doesn’t usually get jitters before performing, but when he found himself sitting on a historic stage in the nation’s capital among some of the best youth musicians in the country, he realized his musical career had come to a pinnacle moment.

Keith, an incoming senior at Free State High School, was selected to the 2022 National Youth Wind Ensemble, a prestigious band consisting of the top selected wind, brass and percussion performers between ages 16 and 19. 

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“It was just such a high-class group and it didn’t really set in until we were playing the concert. It was an incredible opportunity just to be able to sit there and be in such a historic hall,” Keith said.

Keith was one of 40 musicians and one of five trumpeters chosen. As a member of the National Youth Wind Ensemble, he was immersed in music and military history in Washington, D.C., for six days last week. Each experience throughout the week led up to the final performance on June 18 at Warner Theatre in D.C.

The young musicians were able to observe a rehearsal of the United States Marine Band, named The President’s Own, whose job since 1798 has been to entertain at the White House and represent the Marine Corps.

“There was time in between their pieces to go up and talk to any instrumentalist you want to talk to, so it was super cool. The Marines there hadn’t had students come in for the last three years, so they were excited too,” Keith said.

“The President’s Own is arguably one of the best bands in the world, and we got to talk with those professional musicians who wanted to give us their time.”

Daily rehearsals lasted around three hours each and were led and coached by guest conductors and prominent military band musicians from the D.C. area, including Dr. Kevin Sedatole, director of bands at Michigan State University, and Col. Jason Fettig, 28th director of “The President’s Own.”

Contributed Photo Col. Jason Fettig, the 28th director of The President’s Own, conducts his band during a rehearsal while the National Youth Wind Ensemble members watch. Keith Popiel is pictured sitting behind and to the right of Fettig.

Outside of learning advanced pieces during rehearsal time, the musicians went on tours of national monuments and exclusive historic sites. Keith said a highlight was being able to tour the Marine Barracks, which is home to The President’s Own and The Commandant’s Own — the United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and the only active duty drum and bugle corps currently serving in the armed forces.

Keith said the musicians had the opportunity to see the Marine Barracks library archives firsthand. Later, they attended the Evening Parade, a military band concert and marching parade held weekly during the summer.

Directed by Fettig and Sedatole, the ensemble performed at the end of the week in front of an audience of around 500 family members, locals and professional military musicians. Keith sat at second chair in the trumpet section and had a solo part.

“I am just thrilled that Keith worked so hard to audition for the National Youth Wind Ensemble and was rewarded with an invitation to play with these incredible musicians. This kind of musical experience can be truly life-changing,” said Paul Popiel, Keith’s dad.

Paul is the director of bands at the University of Kansas, and he and Keith have shared a passion for instrumental music.

“My dad does have a big influence on me, and most people think he’s forcing me to do this,” Keith joked. “But he supports me, and he doesn’t push. He just gives me the tools and the resources to do what I want to do and I love doing.”

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Along with his dad, Keith expressed gratitude toward his assistant band director at Free State, Melissa Smith, for encouraging him to apply and mentoring him through the process.

After submitting his application and video audition back in January, Keith was selected in early February. He recalled participating in a KU band camp in February, when on the day of the concert, he found out shortly before going onstage that he had been selected. He shared that special moment with his family and everyone around him, and both his parents were able to travel to D.C. to see it come to fruition.

The National Youth Wind Ensemble is sponsored by the Global Initiative for Talented Students (G.I.F.T.S.), a nonprofit organization aimed at helping talented students advance their skills and gain more opportunities and experiences.

Along with a vast range of opportunities he has seized throughout his musical career, Keith is able to add this accomplishment as he heads into his last year of high school. He plans on continuing with band in college and further. 

“I would love to be in a group of professional musicians and be able to make a band like The President’s Own. That would be the ultimate lifelong dream — to make a band that high class,” Keith said.

Contributed Photo Keith Popiel, back row at left, performs alongside the National Youth Wind Ensemble at Warner Theatre on June 18, 2022 as Col. Jason Fettig conducts.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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