Senior Rafael Mekonnen has played the tenor and baritone saxophone, as well as piano. He started primarily playing the baritone in seventh grade and quit playing the piano due to time constraints.
Senior Rafael Mekonnen has played the tenor and baritone saxophone, as well as piano. He started primarily playing the baritone in seventh grade and quit playing the piano due to time constraints.
Caleb Wright

Playing dreams

Senior performs at Carnegie Hall

Music notes rang from wall-to-wall and throughout every corner of the auditorium.

The melody wrapped around every empty seat that would soon be filled with thousands of people. With the piece coming to an end, every musician held the last pitch – everything stopped. The last note rang for ten seconds, then every performer erupted into cheering. When the musicians’ cheers ended, senior Rafael Mekonnen knew he had made it.

Rafael attended and performed for the Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall during a five-day trip in New York on Feb. 7-11. 

Rafael started playing the piano when he was 5 years old. Slowly, he transitioned to playing the alto saxophone during sixth grade and switched to playing the baritone saxophone in seventh grade. Near the end of his sophomore year, Rafael quit playing the piano to focus on improving his skills on the baritone saxophone.

“Piano is what was setting me back,” Rafael said. “Having to drive all the way [to Brookhaven College for piano lessons] every Wednesday and having to do recitals every other month took its toll [on me]. I wasn’t able to practice [the baritone saxophone] as much. [Since quitting,] I made Region [last year]. I didn’t make Region prior, [and] this year, I made Area and I was [an] alternate for All-State.”

Rafael is a part of the wind symphony, runs his own quartet – Aurora – and mentors younger saxophonists. One of the younger students he helps is his brother, sophomore Emanuel Mekonnen, who plays the tenor saxophone. 

“He got really good all of a sudden,” Emmanuel said. “I know he practices a lot; I hear it all the time in the house, night [and] day. He’s really committed to saxophone and music.”

Rafael auditioned to play at Carnegie Hall through the Honors Performance Series by WorldStrides. He had to record himself playing the audition material, which included a short etude created by the organization. The day the results came in, Rafael asked his friend, senior Daniel Kim, to open the email and view the results for him. Daniel’s face lit up with excitement.

“My family was shocked,” Rafael said. “My mom, bless her, was the one who got a ton of scholarships for [me]. I got $1,000 off the tuition because of it. Having her be excited for me as well [as] my friends being excited for me was really nice.”

The trip began on Feb. 7; Rafael was flown into New York and met all the other talented musicians who had been accepted. Rafael had seven to eight hours worth of rehearsals each day to get prepared for his performance. 

“Our conductor, Dr. T André Feagin, focused on getting parts learned as a whole [rather] than in smaller chunks, so [he’d] do way more music at a time than nitpicking certain parts,” Rafael said. “I had doubts about that, but it helped [me] prepare way faster than [I] normally would for a big concert. Everyone [was] passionate about what they did because they’re not just there for the extra credit.” 

The performance was on Feb. 10 at 10 a.m. The ensemble performed four pieces, including “Shepherd’s Hey” by Percy Grainger, “American Hymnsong Suite” by Dwayne S. Milburn, “Vulnerable Joy” by Jodie Blackshaw and “A Deep Reverbation Fills with Stars” by John Mackey. Raffael flew back to Texas the next day. 

“I think [it’s] awesome he had that opportunity because he worked really hard on [his] audition,” saxophone private lesson teacher Mark Smith said. “I was able to play [at Carnegie Hall] when I was a senior as well. That hall rings forever. I was so happy that he got to experience that and have that as a memory that he will [keep] for the rest of his life.”

After Rafael graduates, he plans to go to University of Texas at Arlington for architecture, but does not plan to pursue a career in music past high school. Rafael and his quartet will compete in the upcoming Houston underground saxophone competition May 4.

“I want to do [the competition] because you’re not required to be in a school of music college,” Rafael said.  “You can just audition. I’m hoping one day I can save up [and] buy my own [baritone saxophone, so] I can audition for stuff like that. I want to [continue to] do [music] as a hobby and potentially perform more.”

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