Fifth-graders listen to Winds

Local students find excitement and “Star Wars” at SLO Wind Orchestra concert led by an Atascaderian conductor

photos by Beth Giuffre

Local organizations made it possible for all Atascadero students to attend. Included: top row from left, JoAnne Bruzzo of the Atascadero Performing Arts Committee, Kathy Williams of the Atascadero Optimist Club, Mary Kay Ballack of the Atascadero Optimist Club, Atascadero City Council Trustee and Rotary Club member Charles Bourbeau, bottom row from left, Ann Berry-Gallegos of the Center for Family Strengthening, Mark Darlz of the Atascadero Kiwanis Club and John Gleason (not pictured) of the Santa Lucia Knights of Columbus. 

SAN LUIS OBISPO – The San Luis Obispo Wind Orchestra, a group made up of college students from Cuesta and Cal Poly and professionals, played excerpts from the movie  “Star Wars” and musical “West Side Story” for the fifth-grade elementary students at Atascadero Unified School District last Friday, Oct. 27. The student groups had mixed expectations when they took busses to the Cuesta College Cultural and Performing Arts Center to watch the nonprofit wind band perform, but the mood was, inarguably, high-energy and exciting.

The concert evolved out of an idea that students should be encouraged to join the school band – be it in middle school or high school – by being exposed to music. Not all children’s parents can afford private lessons and symphony tickets, and not all have arts regularly in the curriculum (such as the half-a-school day devoted to the arts at the Fine Arts Academy). But what the schools can do, and what the community of Atascadero decided to invest in, is provide children an opportunity to learn about the instruments of the school band, at a crucial time –right before entering middle school. Concert organizers chose the SLO Wind Orchestra, a group that has been around for 20 years, because wind instruments are what the students will be playing on in a typical elementary school band.

“Our music director, Jennifer Martin chose the theme, but it was actually a committee that contributed to the inspiration behind the themes. The reason we picked particular songs was based on sparking their interest and creativity to things they can relate to, but things that are fun to break down and keep their attention,” said Jen Bittick, Executive Director of the San Luis Obispo Winds Orchestra. The format of the concert was a great success last year, Bittick said, and entailed playing a song, then Conductor Martin would explain the instruments and sound behind each piece, and that would repeat throughout the 45-minute concert.

Bittick said 800 children in San Luis Obispo County attended the concert on two different days. The afternoon concert on Friday was all Atascadero Unified.

“We chose fifth grade because fifth grade is when you get to decide if you want to play in band or not and we also chose this time of the year because they’re going to be asked within the next couple of months if they want to be in the band, and we noticed because of last year’s concert there was a 30 percent increase in the number of kids who were interested in participating in band in fifth grade.” Bittick said, “We had a problem keeping up with the demand with the instruments last year and our musicians had to pull together some of their instruments to give to the schools so that the kids could play an instrument. They didn’t have enough for the increased number of students who wanted to play.”

Atascadero City Council trustee Charles Bourbeau attended the concert with five other community representatives, whose nonprofits made it possible for each and every fifth grade class at AUSD to afford the busses, and to attend the special music appreciation and educational experience. Bourbeau is a member of the Rotary Club of Atascadero. Cuesta College generously donated the facility and all the musicians and staff volunteered their time to put on the concert.

Many students from Atascadero were surprised the musicians played the music from many of their favorite sci-fi movie. Others were not expecting an orchestra without the strings section.

“I didn’t know they were going to play ‘Star Wars.’ I didn’t know what kind of music they were going to play. I thought it was going to be classical,” said Dean Bryson, a fifth-grader from San Gabriel Elementary. Bryson said he used to play guitar, but, like many children his age, didn’t stick with it. After watching the SLO Winds concert he said he just might join the school band.

SLO Winds (with one spunky sax player in a kid-pleasing fuzzy green Yoda hat) played all the memorable ‘Star Wars’ movie parts, including the delightful space bar Mos Eisley Cantina scene; The flute-centric, beautiful, strong Princess Leia parts; the magical Ewok scenes (which made a couple of fifth-grade boys way in the back seats break the tradition of sitting still at an orchestra concert. In pure joy, they came up with an ad hoc modern dance that even the strictest parent chaperone didn’t have the heart to break up). One SLO Winds Flutist did wave her flute scornfully at the front row, but for the most part, the children were perfectly well-behaved and engaged in the performance. The conductor thanked them for being a great audience.

The concert was not just strictly “Star Wars.” The SLO orchestra delighted the kids with a bassoon-based, “Fantasia” song – part of the movie when Mickey Mouse, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, stressfully tried to empty the pails of water from the room his failed magic accidentally flooded, and a heart-warming and peppy of a bit from the Ben E. King song from the 60s, “Stand By Me,” to which the children snapped along to, and then a Winds version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from “West Side Story.” The children were asked to sing along. They were instructed by Martin to sing/shout “Mambo!” at the que of the conductor’s baton, and she asked them to sing “Mambo!” quickly. “It’s not Maaambo,” Martin instructed. It’s much quicker. “It’s MAM-BO!”

Martin, who also serves as Musical Director for Cuesta College, and has conducted many ensembles, high school bands, orchestras and honor groups in the Western state area, plays the trombone and guitar and is a protégé of legendary conductor and promoter of Wind Orchestras, Frederick Fennell. She became Music Director of SLO Winds in July of 2015.

Martin, who lives in Atascadero, was completely in control of the room, gathering rolling hills of laughter from the students as she instructed the trombonists to demonstrate the gliding, sliding sound of a glissando. She introduced the characters and human beings behind the instruments. One Euphonium player, she said, is active in the military, and plays his “small tuba” in the military band. Another had a full-time job as a librarian. When teaching about the grand piano, the children gasped when she told them how much it cost ($80,000).

“Does anyone have a favorite movie about space?” Martin asked the audience. The hands went up. She called on one student in the front. “What’s yours?”

“Star Wars!” the boy said.

“Ok. We’ll play some Star Wars,” said Martin, and the room erupted into loud applause and laughter as she waved her conductor’s wand and the SLO Winds took the children off into the galaxy of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker put to music.

Then she asked the children, “Who’s that little smart guy in ‘Star Wars?’” and the children called out in unison, “YODA!”

Martin’s musicians put forth their best effort to impress the students. When Martin introduced the Baritone Sax section, one sax player held up his instrument like a strong man holds a barbell.

Luke Plascencia, in 5th Grade at San Gabriel Elementary, who plays trombone in band at school, gave the concert a ten out of ten rating.

The Atascadero Fine Arts Academy children have music as a core subject. Kaitlyn Spann, a fifth grader at the Arts Academy said “how big everything was” surprised her. “We were so up close. It was exciting!” Spann, who already plays cello, piano and recorder, enjoyed the part of the concert when the conductor had each instrumental group play separately. This was an intentional effort by the SLO Winds to educate the children on musical nuances. “Because when they were all together you couldn’t hear the individual sounds,” Spann said.

Fellow Arts Academy fifth-grader and drummer Elizabeth Wagsten said the concert was more than she expected. She said, “It was amazing.”

At the end of the concert, Martin thanked everyone involved in putting the concert on, and invited all the children out on the cultural center lawn to visit the “instrument petting zoo” – going around from instrument to instrument with some of the orchestra musicians after the show. She told those who don’t play an instrument yet to talk to their teachers about it. “Join in the party,” she said.

“Many of you already play instruments,” Martin said before the closing piece, the grand finale of Star Wars songs. “I want to encourage you to keep playing and keep singing. It gets a little harder sometimes to keep doing it as you get older. Class requirements become more stringent and so forth, you know other things happen in your lives, and it’s harder to keep going but I want to urge you to keep playing. Because as I was mentioning before, music brings you something nothing else can bring you. It’s your friend that’s always with you. You can always sit down if you’re lonely, if you’re sad, if you’re happy – if you’re feeling strong that day. The music that you play and sing can help reflect that. It’s always with you. Music never lets you down.”

You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.


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