Led by top-tier music instructors such as Michael Riendeau and Alan Parks, Napa High School’s current jazz band continues to raise the bar.
On Jan. 17, the band earned superior marks from the judges at the California Music Educators Association (CMEA) North Bay Jazz Band Festival at Sonoma State University.
The students, graded on national and state standards of performance by the CMEA, set a record for the NHS Jazz Band seven days into a new semester. Half the students (11 out of 22) are new to the jazz band program.
What contributed to this success? Riendeau said, “I think it really was the teamwork, to be honest. I’ve never seen a more congealed jazz band. I can’t explain it any other way. They had the benefit of having two different instructors this year... Alan (the assistant director of Instrumental Music) is able to bring the real-world aspect of it and I’m able to bring the more educational aspect, and it kind of fills in all those gaps. They trust in us to help guide them, and it was a real team effort.”
Riendeau has led the jazz band to four Superior scores since his start as the school’s Director of Instrumental Music in 2009. Practices started before the school year officially began in August. Hours of hard work have been dedicated to perfecting their performance for the CMEA North Bay Jazz Band Festival and subsequent festivals in the spring, including the Reno Jazz Festival on April 26. “We kind of hit the ground running, so to speak,” said Riendeau. “We had one rehearsal over winter break. We knew seven days into school we were going to Sonoma State.”
“We worked really hard with these kids to get them into shape,” Parks said. “It helps that we know what judges look for, even down to the choice of songs.” In addition to song choice, judges reviewed several categories of performance, including sight-reading, quality of sound, style and interpretation, improvisation, time, musicality, and technique.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Micah Gruenwald, a 12th grade trombone player and second-year jazz band participant. “I know that it wasn’t just that day, it was us working hard and diligently all year that really brought us to that level. We couldn’t have done it without putting in all that time beforehand.”
“It was awesome,” remarked Ben Alexander, a senior drummer. Alexander has dedicated his four years at Napa High to the jazz band. Though he recalls recognition in previous years for sight-reading and performance, none were quite like this one. “This year we put in a little more work and I think we clicked better than we had in previous years.”
The band represented their high school at the festival on the same day the school was placed on lockdown during the active shooting at Starbucks on Lincoln Avenue. “We left right as the bell was ringing for lockdown.,” Riendeau said. “We were already on our way out, and we knew the safest place to be during a lockdown was off campus. So we just got out as fast as we could.”
“At first, I was kind of confused and worried,” said Gruenwald. “But after a while we found out it had happened off campus and everything was probably going to be fine.”
Riendeau said, “Once they were able to get the information to realize that everyone was safe and that their friends were okay, they were good to go. They enjoy traveling and socializing with each other so much that it wasn’t really noticeable.”
Riendeau could not have been prouder of the band’s performance at the festival. “Usually when students are performing in an environment as beautiful as Weill Hall, it’s daunting; it accelerates the heart rate. They were able to keep calm and focus on the moment. Mistakes I was hearing in the band room were corrected on stage. Their show was truly better than their rehearsal.”
“On the way there, they were typical teenagers,” Parks said, laughing. “When it came to performance time they acted like pros, and I’ve worked with some pros who definitely weren’t as well prepared.”
“The kids in jazz band are of a whole different mentality than normal kids just walking into high school,” said Riendeau. “They’re a team, the absolute definition of a team. On one layer it’s just like coaching a sport. I would say for jazz band it’s probably like hockey, because it moves so fast… Another layer is decoding the information, which is more cerebral, a lot like an academic class would be, and taking something that’s black and white on a page and turning it into a three-dimensional bundle of emotional content for an audience to enjoy.”
“I’m really proud of them, I think they’re a great band,” said Parks. “Some of them are so new to this concept and they just got into the whole vibe of the thing. I hope it will carry through with them if they continue playing music past high school and that the experience will keep them moving.”
The band is working on its fundraising concert at Blue Note on April 17, which will benefit their upcoming trip to Reno. More information on the concert will be made available in the coming weeks.
“I want to express how amazing the kids are, but how desperate we are for the funding to support these programs,” Riendeau said. “Without support from the community, we would dry up. The only way we can keep these opportunities for kids to perform is with the support of our community... I want to say a huge ‘thanks’ to the Napa Valley Jazz Society. They have been one of our biggest supporters through scholarships and performances for years. They’re a great group of dedicated musicians trying to help out the kids.”
Riendeau and Parks wanted to send an open invitation for any new students interested in joining the music program at Napa High. “We’re here to give them the confidence to let them walk on the edge and embrace that opportunity,” said Parks. “Once you get them started sometimes you can’t stop them.”