MTHS jazz ensembles take home trophies from Newport Jazz Festival competition

The Mountlake Terrace High School Jazz Ensemble 2 recently took first place in their category at the Newport Jazz Festival, while Jazz Ensemble 1 was named a runner-up in its category. The two bands competed in the 3A division against other similarly sized high schools in the festival, held March 19 at Newport High School in Bellevue.

Three of the school’s musicians were selected by judges as outstanding soloists including alto saxophonists Ryan Acheson (Jazz Ensemble 1) and Tsu Sasai (Jazz Ensemble 2) and tenor saxophonist Ezra Fenwick (Jazz Ensemble 2).

Band director Darin Faul noted that the bands haven’t been able to perform in any competitions for the past two years because of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a pretty fun day for us,” he said. “It’d been forever (since there was a high school band competition for them to partake in) and online school was so hard, and we haven’t heard anybody else in forever and so to go to our first competition in that long and then for both bands to make the finals it was like, right on. It was a great feeling.”

Both bands played three songs during their daytime preliminary performances. After judges narrowed the field to three finalists in each category, Jazz Ensemble 1 played one long tune and Jazz Ensemble 2 reprised two songs it had performed earlier. Bands are allotted less time on stage during the finals.

Faul, who has been the band director for 24 years, said of the final results, “It was exciting, we’ve just been sort of in our own school, we’ve barely been able to perform this year and certainly we haven’t heard anybody else perform, and it’s been really challenging to re-enter into school, it’s so different” because of the pandemic. He added that online learning had been difficult for many of his students before the Edmonds School District returned to in-person classes last fall.

MTHS Jazz Ensemble 2 performs during finals at this year’s Newport Jazz Festival. (Images and video courtesy Traci Thorpe)

He noted the two jazz bands have been steadily progressing throughout the school year as the program has attempted to make up for lost time together. Since schools and performances shut down in March of 2020, the bands have only recently been able to begin playing in a limited number of concerts for reduced-capacity crowds, sometimes consisting of mainly just family members.

“It’s not been like, ‘OK, this is how it is here at Mountlake Terrace, and three-quarters of the school has (previously) been here, and these are our traditions and this is how the community goes,’ Faul added. “It’s been really rebuilding all of that and so to see the kids progress, so well, and then when they have the opportunity to perform to rise to the occasion and play at a high level that other people recognize – it felt really good…It’s been a long haul.”

This year has been particularly challenging, Faul said, because things that older students would typically help the younger students to understand, or that band students might normally have experienced previously while in middle school, have not occurred regularly since the pandemic began.

Faul reported that before COVID-19, as a band director “it sometimes felt like there were so many performances, that sometimes there wasn’t time to get in and teach the fundamental like I wanted to because you’re kind of preparing the music for the next performance.” But this year he has found that due to the lack of performances, “the focus is not as pinpointed as I would like.”

During recent preparations for this year’s competition, “I’m explaining to kids what a jazz festival is,” he said, “and a few days later, the question came up, ‘Are we playing at this jazz festival or are we just going to listen?’ It’s that kind of a thing that as a teacher, you just forget sometimes that kids have not had the experiences that you’re used to them having by the time they get (to) me.”

However, in the lead-up to performing at the high school band competition, Faul said the two bands’ focus, engagement, preparation and levels of play “shot way up. So it was just a reminder to me how important it is to perform.”

He added, “For them to go from that (question), two weeks before the festival, to then coming out on top at the festival was quite an accomplishment.” Faul felt that the two bands were also able to elevate their performances while playing in front of a live audience and judges. “They just played really well, I was super impressed with how they played both during the day and at night – it was a big jump.”

Making the finals was “pretty sweet for both bands,” he said. Participating in the competition “was really healthy overall, really motivational overall, kids finally had a chance to come hang out with each other and listen to some bands, which created a stronger sense of community in the program.”

MTHS Jazz Ensemble 1 plays a song during their performance in the festival’s finals.

For many of the students, this was their first time playing at such an event. Faul said that besides the final results, the festival provided them with a valuable opportunity to see peers in bands from other schools who may have similar musical interests.

“I think performing for an audience is great, but seeing your peers also perform for the audience had an impact,” he noted. Adding, “And to be an audience member, like some of them this is probably the first live music they’ve heard” because so many things have been shifted and altered by the pandemic. “So everything is fresh and new and exciting.”

Since their experience at the jazz festival, Faul said he’s noticed that the bands’ students “feel generally more motivated and they just want to get after it now and it was a really positive experience.”

Here are additional videos from the two jazz bands’ performances at the festival available to view online:

Jazz Ensemble 2 (Finals)
“Ace of Hearts”

Jazz Ensemble 1 (Finals)

— By Nathan Blackwell

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