The Urban School Winter Concert

15 Dec

Elena "Harmonica" Goldstein

…was totally great!  I thought I’d put up a couple pictures (thanks Howard and Audrey!) and write a little bit about it. I teach jazz at The Urban School of San Francisco, which is a really groovy small private high school in the Haight-Ashbury district.  The ensemble I direct is the younger of two jazz bands, called the Lab Band.

Twice a year, we get to take all of our ensembles (the small chamber ensemble, the Urban Singers, my band, and the Advanced Jazz Band) and do a show at the historic Herbst Theatre on Van Ness.  It’s pretty nutbars that we get to play such a great venue, but each year, it’s felt more and more like my kids have earned their place on that stage. This year was no exception.

I do a lot of writing for my group – for this concert, as with the last two, I arranged all three of the tunes we played.  It’s a really big part of ensemble directing, for me, and I think that having the ability to write specifically to my players’ disparate ability levels goes a long way towards getting the most out of them in performance.  I actually wrote a whole post about my approach after last year’s truly outstanding spring concert.

This year, I have my biggest Band yet (like, they actually almost qualify as a “Big Band”), and I honestly couldn’t believe how well they did – mainly because of my own slow writing process. One of the downsides of writing original arrangements for the group is that  they have to wait until I finish one before we can really learn it.  This year, that meant that my final arrangement for “It Don’t Mean a Thing” dropped on them two weeks before the concert… we’d been playing iterations of the chart, each one with a bit more than the last, but were sill just finalizing things a few days before the show.

And keep in mind, this band has a bunch of students who just started on their instruments!  So, we’ve got trombone and saxophone players trying to digest this part in a matter of days, when they still don’t know how to play all the notes on their instruments… and the ridiculous thing is that they pulled it off! I’m amazed at the resourcefulness.  If the entire year could be as focused and productive as the two weeks before a performance, I can’t even imagine how much we could accomplish.  Maybe the moral here is to perform more often?

Anyhow, they rocked the thunder, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. In addition to “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” we played an arrangement I did of “Summertime” that riffed off of Gil Evans’ famous arrangement for Miles Davis, substituting harmonica for Miles’ harmon mute.  We closed with a funky-ish version of “In Walked Bud.”  Throughout the set, the kids didn’t miss a single beat.

I’m planning on sitting down over the coming holiday break and banging out all of our charts for the spring, as well as one for the Advanced Band, and I really want to take my time with it and get the most out of this huge, great group. Also, this will be our chance to get as weird as possible – clapping is old hat these days, so I think we’ll do some whistling, if I can figure out how to notate it…


One Response to “The Urban School Winter Concert”

  1. Jo December 22, 2009 at 5:17 pm #

    I was happy to see a picture of Elena and the band! I was just listening to someone bemoaning a high school band concert and said she needs to hear you!

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