Larry Johnson closed one of the last practices of the St. Dominic High School jazz band's school year by reminding the students that they have more talent than they realize and can "take it to the next level."
He's given this advice before, because he's witnessed their talent and has had a hand in developing it.
Take, for example, junior Wyatt Forhan, who plays drums in the jazz band but also plays bass trombone, trombone, piano, bass guitar and tuba.
Forhan is among 21 of the top high school jazz musicians in the country to be chosen for an all-star touring jazz orchestra this summer. The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra will perform at several well-known jazz festivals, culminating in a main stage performance in September at the Monterrey Jazz Festival.
Being in St. Dominic jazz band "means everything to me, especially under the direction of Mr. Johnson," said Forhan, who is considered among the top five trombone players on the tour. "He's impacted all of our lives. I enjoy sharing the joy of music with everyone in this band. I'm lucky to be a part of it."
Forhan's favorite experience this year was playing with St. Dominic's jazz ensemble at the National Catholic Educational Association convention last month at America's Center in Downtown St. Louis. He's considering attending Michigan State University, The Julliard School or the Manhattan School of Music.
"I just want to continue playing music all my life," said Forhan, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Cottleville who is clear about how he got the gift of music. "If it weren't for God I wouldn't be able to play music. I love to play in church and share the talents God gave me."
St. Dominic High School "gave me the opportunity to mature and be the person who I am today" he said. "Everyone here has had such a huge role in my life."
Forhan played in the band at St. Joseph School, at which Johnson leads 220 students in five ensembles. Forhan has always been open to sharing his talents with others and trying to help others improve," Johnson said. "He continues to work and foster his own talent also. He doesn't sit back and take the easy path."
In addition to Next Generation Orchestra, Forhan also was chosen for Jazz U, a training program sponsored by Jazz St. Louis for talented middle and high school musicians in small jazz combos, which meet weekly between September and May. St. Dominic senior Elaina Heavner joined him with that honor.
Heavner, who plays guitar, will be a music major at Webster University in the fall. She'd never played jazz music or in an ensemble and wasn't proficient in reading music before her freshman year.
Heavner "worked really super-hard to fill that chair and do it correctly, taking private lessons and practicing," Johnson said. "She's met every challenge I put before her."
Heavner's arrival at St. Dominic came at a fortunate time; the band didn't have a guitarist/bass player yet. It's difficult to recruit in high school because students have so many options for activities, and Johnson worried he wouldn't have a full band. But he said a little prayer.
"God if you want me here, fill the chairs.' ... In walked Elaina, a guitar player, and her sister, a bass player," Johnson said. "I always told them that they were an answer to a prayer, because without them we wouldn't have a jazz band."
Heavner joked that Johnson is just as thankful for coffee, because the band practices early in the morning before school. Heaver enjoys playing with contemporaries, seeing their joy in creating music. She especially likes jam sessions.
"It's your own take on music, and you get to share a part of you with everyone else," she said.
Each year the group of musicians takes on its own personality, "and you have a chance to foster it along in a variety of ways," Johnson said. "This group has been very open to the message of music that brings us closer together as a community, opens the door to our faith that connects to people in a way beyond the music we're playing and brings an insight to who we are as people in our faith mission."
>> Importance of the arts
The arts were represented at the National Catholic Educational Association convention in St. Louis last month by several Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
For example, the St. Dominic High School jazz ensemble played after the opening session which was preceded by a performance by the St. Gabriel School band. Both drew rave reviews from convention-goers.
The jazz band is one of several successful ones at high schools in the archdiocese. St. Dominic has two students this year who have been selected for competitive programs that has enhanced their musical talent as high school students. "I hope it makes people aware of what can happen if they champion around arts," said Larry Johnson, jazz band director at St. Dominic High School.
Music and other fine arts are challenged as an increasing emphasis is rightly placed on an expanded array of academics, Johnson said. "We need to be on guard to make sure we keep music alive and prosperous for kids who are talented and have so much to offer. If we're not careful, these kinds of programs will slip away."
When fine arts are supported, "we might be surprised at what we might find," Johnson said. "Sometimes we have a gold nugget right before us."
Johnson considers Sister Gail Buckman, SSND, band director at St. Gabriel School in south St. Louis, as his mentor. "She's a person who has really championed the arts and developed talent in a full-scale program," he said.
Many schools have band programs that struggle to stay vibrant, in part because students have so many other activities that leave them with little time for extra activities, Johnson said.
He believes in students having varied backgrounds. Johnson's experience shows that a holistic approach that includes music and more makes for a better athlete and student. "Music and athletics work hand in hand, and I don't think we've explored that enough," Johnson said. "Music makes kids better listeners. It gives them focus. And boy, when you get a kid that has athletic talent that is focused, just what the coaches are asking for, there's quite an opportunity there."
Johnson's experience is backed by a researcher on music for performance, Dr. Costas Karageorghis, who has authored more than 100 studies and says that one can think of music as "a type of legal performance-enhancing drug." A May 2014 study from the University of Liverpool found that musical training can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain, suggesting that the areas responsible for music and language might share common brain pathways.
2017 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra Tour Dates
June 24: Orpheum Film and Performing Arts Center, Tannersville, N.Y.
June 25: Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York
June 27: Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Jazz Street Stage, Rochester, N.Y.
June 29: Montreal Jazz Festival, Montreal
Sept. 14: Monterey County Fairgrounds, Monterey, Calif.
Sept. 14: Jazz Legends Gala, The Inn at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, Calif.
Sept. 17: 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, Monterey, Calif.
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