Inside the lives of student musicians

Madelyn Shapiro and Ava Nicely


When seven year old Jillian Upshaw saw a sparkly blue drum set in Melodee Music, she knew that she had to start playing. “It was beautiful… I was just like, I’ve got to get that drum set, but I don’t know how to play,” Upshaw said. Her dad saw her intrigue, and decided to get her started with a pad and sticks. “He wanted me to learn rudiments, which were more important than the actual action,” Upshaw explained. 

After steadily improving over the next month, she became the owner of that beautiful new drum set. “I was still really focused on guitar at that time… but I just played with a bunch of songs, listened to a bunch of music,” Upshaw explained. It was not until the beginning of middle school that she transitioned to focusing solely on drumming. 

Now a sophomore at Wilson, Upshaw is renowned for her drumming talent. She shocked the DCPS community last year by winning the DC-CAPital Stars musical talent competition. “I’m still amazed honestly, winning as a freshman, winning as a Wilson student, it’s very rare,” Upshaw said. “My parents are so proud of me, I get a lot of recognition at school now, like people are still coming up to me and saying ‘oh, you’re the DC-CAP winner! Congratulations!’”

Upshaw’s win has also helped her to form connections with prominent members of the drumming community. “It opened me up to a lot of doors, it opened me up to Terri Lyne Carrington… she’s been kind of like an admirer of mine. I actually met her sometime in April after DC-CAP. She got to know me, and I got to play in front of her.” Carrington, a Grammy-award winning drummer, even invited Upshaw to open for her at a gig at the African American History Museum. 

At Wilson, Upshaw plays the snare, bass, and quince drums for the Wilson drumline, Swagg Tyme. She emphasized the great camaraderie within the group, saying, “They’re probably some of my closest friends, we hang out after school, usually go into Georgetown… we go ice skating, we watch movies.” 

In addition to Swagg Tyme, Upshaw drums for the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra, the Wilson jazz band, and a band that she and some of her friends from the Blues Alley summer camp have created. She hopes to continue to pursue music by attending the Berkeley College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. “With Berkeley, unlike other colleges, they have way more variety of bands, like they probably have like a James Brown Band, and they have a whole orchestra,” she said. 

At Berklee, Upshaw explained that she would want to focus on drumming but also expand her knowledge of different instruments and aspects of music. “I’d like to study music theory. Even though I’m a drummer, [and] I don’t have harmonies in my music, just to know what the guitar is playing, what the trumpet is playing.” 

Upshaw has very ambitious plans for her drumming career. “I think I would like to start out in a band group. People like Lizzo, they have a DJ, and sometimes they have bands, so I won’t necessarily be the main act, but I’ll still be on stage and getting to be in the Grammy’s and the Tony awards. And then when I get more established, and people know my name more, then maybe I’ll break out as a solo artist.”

Most importantly for Upshaw, however, is being happy. “I don’t really care about the fame and the money, but as long as I can drum, and tour around the world, and give back to people, that’s happiness. That’s probably the biggest part. And giving back to my family, and my school, because they’ve given a lot to me, a lot of opportunities. So those would be my goals… to make a difference in the world.” 



After her grandmother serendipitously spotted a flyer for Camp Levine, seven year old Catherine Hammes decided it would be fun to spend her summer playing music there. Though she was first introduced to music in elementary school and a member of the percussion ensemble, this camp was formative in developing her passion for music. “From there I kept going back every single summer. I had my camp friends, I knew all the counselors and the directors. I couldn’t not go to camp—it became my summer tradition,” she said. 

Hammes began playing the flute in fourth grade as part of Lafayette’s concert band, and since then, has only expanded her instrument repertoire. She decided to take up lessons with Levine Music in eighth grade as she was becoming a more serious player because she trusted their teaching philosophy after being a camper and counselor there for so many years. 

When she got to Wilson, Hammes joined the concert band. As a sophomore, she had the opportunity to play in the orchestra pit for the Legally Blond musical. That experience invigorated her passion for music. “I had always liked music but I hadn’t found my niche in music, so that really inspired me to really pursue different gigs,” she said. 

Last year Hammes decided to join Wilson’s jazz band, a smaller group, after she began taking saxophone lessons with a freelance musician who’s a woodwind doubler. “I wanted to take lessons from a doubler to learn more about that aspect and what it’s like to be a professional doubler,” she explained. Though currently Hammes considers herself a woodwind doubler because she can play multiple families of woodwind instruments, she hopes to become “one of the really valuable doublers” who can also play double reed instruments like the oboe and bassoon. Regarding her decision to join the jazz band, Hammes explained, “I thought it would be a really good opportunity for me to continue to develop on the saxophone and learn more about soloing in that genre of music.”

Outside of playing for Wilson’s bands, Hammes pursues gigs where she generally performs in musical theater pit orchestras at high schools and community theaters. Depending on the show and its budget, these gigs can be paid or unpaid, and Hammes has found the gigs to be largely offered through networking. Her favorite gig was playing flute, piccolo, and tenor and alto saxophones for the musical Little Shop of Horrors at ____ theater last March. “It was my favorite music, the pit was really connected and meshed really well, and just the quality and the talent that was there was very high, so I felt it was a very good quality show,” Hammes said.

When she does gigs for community theaters and institutes, Hammes has found herself to be one of the youngest in the orchestra pit. “It’s very intimidating for me going in because I know that I’m the least experienced, but I always try to remember that I was asked to play this gig, I meet the threshold that they want, they want me to play,” she said.

Now a senior, Hammes has exciting plans for her future. She hopes to become a music therapist, a health profession involving the use of music to address any physical, mental, or emotional needs of a person. Music therapists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals and schools, and some are even built into students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to help them learn through expressing information with music. When she first discovered the career through Levine Music’s music therapy program, Hammes realized it would wonderfully combine her passion for music with her science calling. “The music therapy degree seemed really fulfilling and that sort of career seems really gratifying to help people with music,” she said.



Due to his musical family, junior Griffin Beronio was exposed to music from a young age. His parents encouraged him to begin taking lessons when he was eight.

Though Beronio’s main instrument is the piano, he decided to play saxophone with the Wilson concert band his freshman year. Now, he’s a member of the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra and a jazz band at the Levine School of Music. 

Beronio appreciates music as a unique form of artistic expression. “Playing music is challenging but rewarding, and a very different way of interacting with other people,” he explained. 

One of Beronio’s musical idols is artist Stephen Bruner, also known by his stage name Thundercat. “His style is really unique, and he really shows a lot of expertise,” he explained. However, Beronio would prefer to be in a band over being a solo artist like Thundercat. 

In the future, Beronio is primarily focused on improving his craft and gaining experience. “I hope to keep up music through college and find ways to pursue it afterward as well,” he said. 



Senior Gabby Bagnoli has been playing the saxophone since fourth grade, and has been a part of the Wilson jazz band for the past four years. “[I pursue music] mostly [for] college, but… it’s still fun, I enjoy it.”

With the jazz band, Bagnoli plays in two Wilson concerts and in one competition. “I enjoy most of the music we play,” Bagnoli said. “It’s blues, and sometimes there’s a lot of funk.”

Bagnoli explained that jazz band normally starts off slowly, as they need to incorporate the new players and review musical skills. Then, once “we start to play songs it gets really fun, and it’s good for concerts once we get to that level.” 

Members of the jazz band are part of the class of the same name, where they study music theory in addition to practicing the songs that they perform. “I didn’t even know [music theory] was a thing until I got into the class,” Bagnoli said. “It’s figuring out how music works… and manipulating scales and stuff to learn how to improvise and how it fits to a song.”