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UPCLOSE: RISING TO THE TOP

Josh Harris • March 2002 • March 1, 2002

The award-winning 315 All-Stars from central New York grew out of a music veteran’s experience and an up-and-comer’s enthusiasm. Director Howard Potter, the performing arts department chairperson at Manlius Pebble Hill School in Syracuse, had some reservations about competing in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition – until one of his students convinced him they could succeed.

Student Tom Cardarilli, who played alongside Potter in a student-faculty jazz combo called the Barn Burners, had attended the Eastman summer music program and had heard all about the Essentially Ellington competition from other students in the program. A professional percussionist who had played in orchestras, military, jazz and rock bands for 20 years, Potter understood the fierce competition student ensembles face in this type of contest. The winner of the Essentially Ellington competition has the opportunity to perform with legendary trumpet player Wynton Marsalis at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. [See related story, Playing in Wynton’s Band, Essentially Ellington Competition.]

During a break at a Barn Burners gig one night, Cardarilli proposed the idea of forming a regional jazz ensemble of “all-star” players to take to competition.

“He kind of dragged us into this,” Potter recalls. “I kept saying to him, ‘You have no idea – this is a competition on a national and international level and the groups are just amazingly good.’ And he kept saying, ‘I really think we could do this.’ “

Right there during the break, Cardarilli and Potter designed their ideal jazz ensemble, handpicking some of the great young jazz musicians they had met in other towns while gigging. Once the dream team had been assembled, Potter began to see Cardarilli’s vision clearly. Potter said to his enthusiastic student, “If we could get that group together, that would be amazing.”

Amazing – and an incredibly rewarding experience for the 18 students who agreed to join the ensemble under Potter’s direction. Throughout autumn, the group rehearsed on weekends, practicing the Ellington compositions required for the competition. In January, they made the recording at Potter’s school (Manlius Pebble Hill), which features a state-of-the-art digital recording studio, and submitted the tape. Then, they waited.

On March 1, 2001, the 315 All-Stars were named one of 15 finalists in the Essentially Ellington competition. Six of the All-Stars were Potter’s students at Manlius Pebble Hill, and he wanted to tell them the good news as a group – so he summoned them all to the principal’s office.

“They all came traipsing into the office thinking, ‘What did I do?’ They all thought they were in trouble. I waited until they were all sitting there in the office and I walked in and told them we had made it. The kids were just bouncing off the walls, they were so excited.”

School Band and Orchestra: How long did you have to prepare, between the time you found out you were accepted until the competition?

Potter: We were notified on March 1 and the competition itself was May 17, so it was quite a bit of time – it was two-and-a-half months. At that point, we started with sectional rehearsals during the week, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Saturdays, we still had our full band rehearsal. That kept going on all the way until the end of April. Two or three weeks prior to the competition, we went into a five- or six-day rehearsal schedule. We rehearsed pretty much every day but one, refining every single aspect of the performance.

One of the wonderful benefits of this competition is that once you get invited to the finals, they send up two people from Lincoln Center to work with your band, wherever the band is. There are 15 bands in the finals, from all across the country. We were the only one from New York state. Two people from Lincoln Center came to work with the band – Seneca Black, who’s the lead trumpet player of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and also Justin DiCioccio, a phenomenal jazz music educator who is currently the head of the jazz program at the Manhattan School of Music. He also worked for many years in the music program at the LaGuardia School for the Performing Arts in New York City, so he has a ton of experience working with kids and working in jazz. It was a thrill to have them up here for the whole day in April. Different people go to different bands and work with them. That was a really neat added benefit to the competition.
 

SBO: How many pieces were you working on?

Potter: You’re supposed to play three tunes and you’re supposed to bring other tunes that you’re ready to play perchance that you make the top three. If you make the top three, you get to play a concert with Wynton Marsalis as your lead trumpet player. While we did prepare for that, we certainly didn’t expect it.

Every stage of this competition is so incredibly well thought-out. They seem to have thought everything out in a pedagogical sense so that at every turn, it’s a learning experience for the kids in the band and for the director as well. When you arrive there the first day, all the bands come in from all over the country and convene together at the LaGuardia School, right near Lincoln Center. You get to see an open rehearsal of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra run by Wynton Marsalis. It’s very informal. That is to say, they talk about what they’re doing. They don’t just rehearse and ignore the kids sitting out in the audience. They have an open rehearsal in every sense of the word. They open up all of the ideas they’re working on and it’s absolutely fascinating to see such great players talking about the process for their preparation for their concerts.

At some point that afternoon, you see a movie on Duke Ellington, with historical clips from his life. That night, they bus everybody to a nightclub where we have a jam session – combos from each school have the opportunity to play for the group – and dinner. Seated at every table is one member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, so the kids can talk with them about anything they want. They’re all meandering around, so the kids went over and talked to Wynton Marsalis and everybody in that band. They’re all just incredible players and wonderful people. Again, there were so many learning experiences. Our kids learned that those musicians in that group are not only incredible musicians impeccable in their artistry, but they’re wonderful human beings, and they’re very open and they were not aloof in any way. They were very communicative. They were great with kids. They could have been diplomats at the U.N. They were so genteel and kind and well-spoken and sensitive artists. You could sit and talk to them forever and learn so much. And the kids did, and they just loved it.

SBO: What was your reaction to winning the competition?

Potter: We knew this was a great band. These are all great kids and we hand-picked them from nine different schools. But we didn’t know how good we were. You’re in your school in the Central New York area and you don’t know what’s really out there. You wonder, “What are the bands like in Kansas City and San Francisco?” You’re competing against anybody and everybody, so you really don’t have an idea. We went into this thing blindly thinking, “We hope we make the next level.” And sure enough, we made the finals, and they do that strictly based on the recording you send in. Then, at the finals, you spend two days performing and each band hears all the others play, which in itself is another very important learning experience. You got to hear the top 15 bands. What happens is, on the last day, when everybody has played – about 4 o’clock in the afternoon – Wynton Marsalis and the judges come out. Again, they turned that into a pedagogical experience. They talked about the criteria and what they’re looking for. They talked about what they saw and heard, with specific examples. Then they announced the three bands that would get to stay that night and have dinner and a rehearsal with them and then play with Wynton Marsalis that night. We happen to have made that cut. But you still didn’t know who was one, two and three.

After the rehearsal, dinner and concert, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra did a concert of next year’s competition music, which was phenomenal. A lot of the judges came up and soloed with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which was really neat because it showed the kids that these people are not academics sitting in their ivory tower saying, “You’ve won, you’ve lost.” They are practitioners at the highest level.

Then at the end of the night, they hand out individual awards for best soloists, best sections, etc. And then, finally, they bring up the band directors and whittle it down. I felt like it was the Miss America Pageant. I ended up being the last one up there on stage, much to my surprise. I kept sort of walking forward, thinking, “Okay, this is it.” And it wasn’t. They saved the 315 All-Stars for the very end and we ended up winning the competition. They really de-emphasize the competition part of it. Yes, it is a competition, but really, all of the bands that are invited to play in that particular competition are capable, on any given day, of winning it. We happen to have played, at least in their eyes, best in those couple of days. They were all phenomenal groups.

SBO: What has the community’s reaction been to the students’ accomplishment?

Potter: When we got back to Syracuse, we took a break from rehearsing – we had rehearsed practically every single night for three weeks. These kids had to get back to their academic work to sort of save the year. We stopped playing, but there was a lot of publicity – newspaper, television and radio interviews – and then we decided that we wanted to continue to perform. So they played another four or five concerts. They also played with the Syracuse Symphony on the Fourth of July. We performed at several nightclubs in the area – lots of people wanted to hear this band that had been chosen as one of the great high school jazz bands in the world. So we tried to get out and play as much as possible. Those were really fun performances because the pressure was off and we could just go out and have a really good time. The students were extremely well prepared. All of this was really giving us the idea that this thing has to continue. We have to find a way to make this go on. Here we are doing it again this year and I have also started, at my school, a jazz school on Saturdays – eight Saturdays in the fall and eight Saturdays in the spring. It’s a jazz school for kids in the area. We’re hoping to develop a breeding ground for the 315 All-Stars and to spread the joy of jazz and the learning of jazz improvisation for the kids in the area.

SBO: Has the overall experience inspired you to pursue this opportunity again?

Potter: It was three days, just fun-filled and information-filled and inspiring. That’s why we want to do it again. We are hooked. My program at MPH is hooked on Duke Ellington and on this program at Lincoln Center. It has really changed all our lives. The other kids in Central New York who are involved are also feeling the same way.

SBO: How do you think your experiences as a professional musician for 20 years have helped you as an educator?

Potter: I play all the percussion instruments. I have music degrees in percussion from SUNY Fredonia (bachelor’s), Eastman School (master’s), Juilliard School (master’s) and a doctoral of musical arts from the Manhattan School of Music. I played on Broadway and various places. Right after I graduated from high school, I did not go to college right away; I went on the road and performed with jazz and rock groups all across the United States. I was in the Army Band at West Point for a while. I played in many orchestras – the Eerie Philharmonic in Pennsylvania, the Rochester Philharmonic in Rochester, N.Y., the National Orchestral Association at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I did the whole professional thing and was training and hoping to be in a major symphony orchestra . I made the finals many, many times, but never quite got there. I just felt like I could keep auditioning for the rest of my life and never get in there. So, at age 40, I decided I wanted to teach. I wanted to share with kids all that I had learned as a professional musician, so at that point, I went into teaching.

The years of professional playing are a great benefit to my teaching experience. There’s nothing like playing six nights a week, week in and week out, to make you appreciate what goes into fine, fine playing. If you can pass that on to your kids, that’s a neat thing. I feel, too, that in a way, I have more to share with them in having gotten close, but no cigar. The years of close, but no cigar are years that I will carry with me forever. I think that in many ways, I have more to share with them because of that than had I “made it.” I can relate better to the students. Frequently, through All-County auditions and all of the experiences the students go through, they get close, but they don’t quite get there. I know what that feels like and I can relate to them well because of that. Also, I have an understanding of the real world out there and I’m very open with them and I share all these things with them. They know that it’s a very difficult life – for those who are considering becoming professional musicians. I have had the opportunity to work with people who won every audition that they took. Now, that is a wonderful thing, but frequently, they don’t even know how they did it. They’re so good that they can do it, but they have a hard time explaining what they did. They’re great players, but not necessarily teachers.

SBO: How has the 315-All Stars ensemble evolved since its inception?

Potter: One thing I left out is that Jazz at Lincoln Center sends out Duke Ellington music that you have to perform for this competition. Our ensemble sort of revolves around that music. This year, we sent for the new music. They send you six tunes for the price of one. So, basically, you get five pieces for free. I’ve encouraged as many music directors as I could to jump on this opportunity because the arrangements are wonderful – they’re perfect for high school-level playing. It’s beautiful, classic American music, and it’s practically for free. It’s a good deal.

The thing that changed this year is that we didn’t know as many area kids as we did last year. Last year, we hand-picked every single student. This year, we held auditions in a more traditional way. For two consecutive Saturdays, right after the Saturday jazz program that we do, we held auditions. We tried to publicize it as much as we could. Kids came from all over – probably 50 students – and auditioned. We went into it thinking that we’re going to have a few extra players in each section this year because if someone gets sick, we’ll have a replacement. We had about 12 from last year, so we took about another 12 from that 50. Plus, we’ll probably have some younger players for the following year. This music is very sophisticated and it takes a while to really learn it. If you’re in this kind of a group for more than one year, it’s going to be beneficial because it takes a while to pick up on all the nuances of this music.

As I say, this is a younger group this year. They’re very willing to work. They work really hard. We’ve had rehearsals almost the entire [holiday] vacation, every day. They’re very serious. A lot of them want to go into music professionally. Some of them are just very talented in this area but they have other interests as well.

One of the neatest things about this particular group is to see how they learn and grow in this music over time. Last year, honestly, we didn’t see that happen until the very end – April and May, right before the competition. This year, we’re seeing that right off the bat. It’s probably because they’re a younger group. They are learning a lot about this music and about playing in a great group.

SBO: What characteristics make a good jazz band participant?

Potter: I’d say the bottom line is the desire to play well and learn about Duke Ellington’s music. Like any group, the kids have to have the willingness to work hard on their instrument. You’ve got to put in the practice time outside of rehearsal. You have to have an absolute love for doing that. That’s for any group. What we’re about here is learning about Duke Ellington, and this is music that is 50, 60, 70 years old. A lot of young kids are into the latest thing and so we have to have students who are open-minded enough and smart enough to know that there is a history to all of this latest stuff, and that what we’re doing when we’re studying Duke Ellington is we’re going back and we’re learning where all this music came from. That’s also important: an openness and an appreciation of Duke Ellington’s music. There are other aspects that are true for any ensemble: a team spirit, a spirit of coming to rehearsal and to performances with the feeling that you want the group to shine, not just you. Those are universal traits that I would look for in any student musician, and those are the kinds of things we look for in people in general. In that same vein, not only wanting the group to shine, but applauding each other’s accomplishments and noting when someone is getting better at something and commenting on it and being really positive. My students do this. They’re wonderful kids. They’re the kind of kids you want. Some are very shy, and some are boisterous and outspoken, but they really – all of them, right down to the last one – are appreciative of each other and applaud each other when they do well.
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SBO: What is the most challenging aspect of directing the 315 All-Stars?

Potter: The challenges are many. One of the more mundane challenges is scheduling kids from different schools. You finish your day at your school and then you’ve got to think about all these other kids who don’t even go to your school and to get their schedules lined up. That is a challenge – there’s no question about it.

Another challenge is the recording aspect of it. We’re going through that right now. It’s a whole art in itself. How do you record an 18-piece band and make it sound good? They do not allow any editing on the tapes [for the competition]. You’ve got to get it right in the take. You can’t do any overdubbing or anything like that. That’s quite a challenge – to get all the balances correct – because we’re not professional recording studio people. Then come all of the musical challenges. You have kids – even in this kind of a group – who are at different levels. Some are quite advanced, some are in the middle and some are at the bottom – not much different than any other school’s ensemble. You’re dealing with multi-level playing and constantly working on trying to bring the bottom up and also to challenge the better players, all at the same time. That is not an easy task.

There are really three aspects to the ensemble sound, the way I’m seeing it, when the group plays their written parts as a whole: that they sound perfectly in tune, that they have a great swinging sound that makes you want to tap your feet and get up and dance, and that they have great articulation and clarity in their playing and blend. The basic musical attributes that you work on in any ensemble are certainly present here. And maybe, because it’s a competition, you’re focused on it even more.

Another aspect of this whole endeavor is the soloing capability of your kids, and working on developing good solos. I spend time with each one of them working to show them how they can do these solos.

SBO: How are the soloists selected?

Potter: All the way through, I tell them that they can all work on the solos, but we will only pick the best ones. We just have to have it that way. This, again, is different from my school ensemble, where it’s more of an equal opportunity. This is a competition ensemble where we have to have our absolute best foot forward at all times, so it’s quite different from my school groups, where I encourage kids who are not quite up to par to jump in there and solo. That’s absolutely a necessary step to develop great soloists. Everybody has to start from somewhere, so I encourage them all to do that. In this situation, I give them all the opportunity to work on it. Then, about a week-and-a-half away from the recording session, we decide who is going to be the soloist at any given time.

They each improvise their own solo. I encourage them to write it out if necessary. Everybody’s playing their own solos and the group decides whose is the best and who plays it the best. I like to open up everything to the group as much as possible and let it be a group decision. If I have to be the tie-breaker, then so be it. It’s very difficult. That’s another challenging part to this: some of them are going to get to solo and some of them are not. The one thing I am going to try to do that we did last year is we’ll record things enough times to give many students a chance to solo. And then we can actually save the picking and choosing for when the recording has already been done. You never know what’s going to happen. You can have kids who’ve been doing really well all along have a bad day. Or, other kids, who have not been doing quite as well, suddenly are inspired and focused and are able to come up with a really nice solo. I try to keep that as open as possible. It’s such an individual thing.

SBO: What are your goals for the ensemble?

Potter: The ultimate goal, really, is to learn about and understand the great genius of Duke Ellington. Another goal is for these kids to learn the great traditions of their instruments – the great players that came before them. I tell them, “No matter what you’re instrument is, there are a long line of great geniuses that came before you. The more you understand that and know their music and can play their music, the better you’re going to be.” So that’s another goal. And just to see them get better as musicians and people is even more of a goal. It’s not really about winning. Of course, we would love to get invited to this thing and go to New York City, and at any stage we would be thrilled to go and do that, but the real payoff is the process. It’s not the product. It’s not the ultimate prize. The real prize is in the doing of it. We’re already seeing lots of progress in these kids. They have made huge leaps and bounds of progress and that’s very enjoyable. I keep trying to tell them that that’s what it’s really all about and that we’re thrilled that they’re making this kind of progress.

SBO: Would you like to add anything about your school’s music program?

Potter: I am the chairperson of the performing arts department. At MPH, we have slightly over 500 students. There are two vocal teachers, two-and-a-half instrumental music teachers and a dance teacher. We do all the regular things that all the other schools do – we do an annual musical and we participate in All-County and all of that stuff – but beyond that, we do have this recording studio, which is a real benefit. We record our kids at school and it’s a great learning tool for them to hear themselves perform. Also, we’re able to prepare for them CDs for college applications.

We also offer Suzuki instrumental string education, pre-K through grade 2. We start them when they’re really little. It’s a wonderful thing to see all these little kids out there learning to play and having a good time doing it also. We have orchestras and wind ensembles all the way through, from elementary through high school. We have a steel drum ensemble, numerous jazz ensembles, at all levels – elementary through high school – and jazz combos. We have an African hand-drumming ensemble and various chamber groups – string quartets, woodwind quintets, brass quintets, etc.

UpClose appeared on pages 22 – 31 in the March issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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