Jazz inspires confidence in Steamboat students, Moffat at Strings School Days
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – The soft sounds of alto saxophones, the luminous call of trumpets, the deep heartbeat of an upright bass and the high notes of a piccolo could be heard Wednesday evening throughout the pavilion of the string music.
While there was a professional jazz quartet on hand, most of the sounds came from students in high school groups in Steamboat Springs and Moffat County.
The night’s concert was the highlight of Strings School Days, a music education program designed by Strings Music Festival to bring together students and professional musicians from Yampa Valley. The annual program, now in its 13th year, serves 3,000 students per year in 14 different schools.
“Overall, the number one goal of the program is to increase positive self-esteem and hopefully they want to keep playing or try out a new instrument,” said Katie Carroll, director of the arts and education administration at Strings.
Each year, the musical genre changes. Previous years have seen students learn bluegrass, funk and classical. This year the music has turned to the slower, more improvised side with jazz and the Chicago-based Josh Rzepka Quartet.
Josh Rzepka, namesake and trumpeter of the quartet, said he was originally recommended for the program by Strings music festival director Michael Sachs.
“I had the opportunity to study with him a few years ago, but it was a bit out of the blue,” said Rzepka. “It was quite amazing to be thought of and taken into account for such a wonderful program – especially by a musician and trumpeter whom I admire so much.
The quartet, consisting of Rzepka on trumpet, Theron Brown on piano, Zaire Darden on drums and Mike Forfia on bass, began working with students in October. For months the group couldn’t be in town, so they uploaded videos for the students to watch and practice.
“We also picked some music and assigned what they would prepare for this week’s concert,” Rzepka said.
The quartet was back in town for a week to practice and rehearse with the students ahead of this week’s concert, and the experience since October has had a profound impact on the students.
Emma Poper, a freshman at Steamboat Springs High School and Gemini Mess, are both members of the concert and jazz groups and were prepared to perform improvised solos during the concert. Both agreed that the training and direction provided by professional musicians as well as the confidence placed in them to perform a solo on the fly helped build them.
“Knowing that I have to be confident and playing my solo really hard helps me feel confident,” said Mess, who plays the clarinet.
And, the two young musicians agreed that the fun and courageous tempo of jazz brought something new to their usual repertoire.
“Jazz – you have to put your heart and soul into it,” Poper said.
Wendy Dillon, a music teacher at Steamboat Springs High School, not only loves the way the program shows students what they can be in the future, but also highlights what she sees every day working with them.
“It reinforces what I tell them every day,” Dillon said. “They know it, but it helps to hear it from someone else, especially a professional musician.”
The experience also had an impact on Rzepka, as he watched the students grow up.
“They all have such good attitudes and a willingness to hear and implement new ideas – even if they are outside of their comfort zone,” said Rzepka.
Throughout the performance, several students played their solos in their own style, some even dancing with their saxophones and trombones as the music passed them. Their confidence seemed to grow as, one by one, they stepped forward to perform in front of family, friends and community members there to hear the show.
“Music brings us together as a community,” Carroll said. “We live in such a Netflix culture right now, and the power of the music of the moment is unmatched.”
This phenomenon was definitely visible when jazz band Steamboat closed the show to thunderous applause with their performance of “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.
“When you encourage, inspire and support young musicians, it always gives a better return than what was put in place,” said Rzepka.