To strains of "Greensleeves" — and under the watchful eye of coaches hired from the community — Ashland Middle School musicians sharpened their musicality in preparation for the big event of the year, today's Solo and Ensemble Festival, in which 13 small groups of musicians will perform.

To strains of "Greensleeves" — and under the watchful eye of coaches hired from the community — Ashland Middle School musicians sharpened their musicality in preparation for the big event of the year, today's Solo and Ensemble Festival, in which 13 small groups of musicians will perform.

"This is the number one way these kids get better on their instruments. It requires they do a lot of extra music and it helps them develop their musicianship and experience with performing," said coach Cynthia Hutton, band director at Southern Oregon University.

"It's exciting and really focuses our talent," said Nina Compeau a member of the ensemble "Girls in the Wind," which played the haunting folk tune "Greensleeves." "We're doing it all without a conductor," said Anna Werthaiser, after a set of performances Wednesday for band classmates in the AMS Commons. "We use signals to communicate with each other. It's really fun."

The annual festival, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at AMS features groups from many Southern Oregon schools and decides who goes to state competitions. The coaching for AMS ensembles was funded by a $1,000 grant from Ashland Schools Foundation, a donor-supported group that is giving $240,000 to school projects this year, according to ASF Executive Director Susan Bacon, who watched the performances.

The coaching sessions, weekly for nine weeks, "go way beyond playing the right note and rhythm. It's about expressing yourself musically," said Angel McDonald, saxophonist and coach of the wind ensemble.

"It gives us a chance to connect in a different way," said student Emma Hassell. "Our minds connect because of the music."

Drummer and percussion coach Tom Freeman said coaching sessions have taught the students to know counter-rhythm and to blend themselves dynamically in an ensemble.

Bringing 13 ensembles together for public performance in just a few months and making sure every band student gets to play solo and in group "takes incredible organization and understanding of the value of getting the kids in this setting. It's a lot of pressure but Jennifer carries it out," said Hutton, referring the AMS band teacher and festival director Jennifer Carstensen.

"The festival," said Carstensen, "increases the personal responsibility of each musician exponentially. When they play in a quintet, for example, they become 20 percent of the outcome but each needs to be the leader of their part, which inspires them to practice with great commitment. They also get to listen to each other ... and make good musical decisions together."

Other coaches are Bruce Dresser, Ryan Johnson, Vicki Purslow, Ivan Olinghouse and Jamie Krull. The festival is sponsored by the Southern Oregon Music Educators. AMS last year sent three students to state.