NEGAUNEE - Instruments are tuned, music is open on their stands and the students sit watching their conductor for the downbeat. But it's no march they're playing, not your usual band concert music.
Although they might also participate in their schools' traditional symphonic band, participating in jazz band gives students exposure to musical techniques and styles they might not get to experience in their regular band class.
"It's more free. It's a different style of music," said Haley Thomas, 17, a senior in the Negaunee High School jazz band. "It's more chill."
Participating in a jazz band gives high school musicians exposure to different styles of music and pushes them to learn to improvise. Barry Hopper, 19, a Negaunee High School senior, plays the trombone. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
Haley Thomas, 17, another NHS senior, plays sax in the band. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
NHS band director Jeremy Connin directs the school’s jazz band during a rehearsal. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
Luckily for student musicians, jazz band programs are available at a number of area schools, either as a regular class or as an extracurricular activity.
"We rehearse every day as a normal class," said NHS band director Jeremy Connin. "Many places have a before-school program."
The Negaunee jazz band plays around three concerts per year, plus extra performances or "gigs" for special events, and the students take the jazz band performances just as seriously as their symphonic band concerts.
"It's more free. It's a different style of music. It's more chill."
Haley Thomas, 17, NHS senior
"We all have to be together, otherwise nothing's going to happen," said NHS senior Barry Hopper, 19.
While a traditional band could have 50 or 60 members, a jazz band is typically smaller. Negaunee's has 18 members, putting more pressure on the students to learn their parts accurately.
"You might be the only one playing that part," Connin said. "There's a lot more soloing. As a student, you're going to be expected to know your part."
Besides having to have a good handle on their individual parts, jazz band students are also required to improvise - making up their own solo in the middle of the song.
"You can show your personality more with soloing," said senior Jordan Paquet, 18.
For students who are used to reading music, that can be a challenge.
"It was frightening at first," Paquet said.
"Eventually you get used to knowing what sounds right," Thomas added.
To help students learn how to truly play jazz, Connin said the class focuses on technique and theory, as well as just practicing the music.
"We spend a lot of time talking about blues chord progressions," he said. "We talk about if you have this type of chord, you might use this scale for a solo."
Knowing how to improvise is important, as each student in the band, from percussion to piano to trumpet, is expected to play a solo.
"We try to make sure every student plays a solo during the week. Some students don't enjoy it, some do," Connin said. "They're in jazz band. They need to know they'll be expected to do a solo at some point."
That emphasis on being able to play independently and exposure to different styles of playing leads to more self-confident musicians, Connin said.
That's also what makes it fun, the students said.
"It's a lot of fun. We get to play a lot of gigs you don't get to play in symphonic band," said senior Phil Landblom, 18.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.