Learning life skills through music

While schools across the nation are shuttering the doors to their band rooms, the San Juan Island School District is fortunate to have a funded music program.

“The district has been very generous,” Cart Nelsen. Friday Harbor High and Middle school band teacher said, who has been teaching at Friday Harbor High School for five years. Under his watch, the high school bands have received superior ratings in festivals judged by music professionals.

Last year, the concert band received three superior ratings at the San Juan Music Educator Association Large Group Band Festival, which took place at Western Washington University. The ensemble competed against approximately 30 bands from around the world during that competition.

A superior rating is the highest rating like an A, Nelsen explained, and are not handed out lightly.

“The school and community should feel very proud,” Nelsen said.

The island has been supportive to the music program as well, according to Nelson. During this year’s county fair, The San Juan Island Community Foundation received $3,675 in donations which will go toward new instruments and assisting students to repair instruments who may not otherwise be able to afford to.

Over Labor Day weekend, the annual Lakedale Jazz Festival donated two trombones to the Friday Harbor High and Middle School music program. The festival was started three years ago by Karl Bruno, who plays with Nelsen in the local band One More Time. Bruno’s friends and fellow musicians Terry Miller and Brian Nova helped start the Jazz Festival. Bruno noted the group is committed to holding the festival for at least 10 years. More than $2,000 was raised this year alone. Next year, Bruno said he hopes to include a June rock festival. He added that organizers hope to continue to every island music program in need.

“This is our way of giving back to the music universe,” Bruno said.

A portion of donations from the festival was given to the international nonprofit Terry’s Kids. Terry’s Kids partners with San Francisco Study Center to help introduce youth to the arts.

“Over the last generation, music programs have been all but eliminated in our schools,” the Terry’s Kid website states. “Our goal is to bring children together through music. We provide free music programming to title 1 and title 2 schools. We do this through performance, instructor placement, concerts, clinics, and lessons on a national and international basis.”

Bruno noted he believes music is one of the best ways to communicate with the world.

“Creativity is at the helm of any music production, and typically music is the release of pure emotion, oftentimes impacting the listener and musician beyond expectation,” he explained. “Interacting and emotionally connecting to musician can be a seriously rewarding experience that leads to soul felt joy for both musician and the audience.”

It should be noted that many of Nelsen’s students have continued on in the music profession, some as teachers themselves, others as professional musicians.

“Music is an important life skill,” Nelsen explained. “It teaches the business of empathy for one another.”

Nelsen, who has also been a coach, said that similar to sports, being in a band helps bring students together, causes them to bond and care for one another, with the added benefit of teaching responsibility.

“It’s a lifetime lesson; appreciating those that are excelling while being dedicated to succeed as well,” Nelsen said.

This year there are approximately 160 middle and high school students in the music program, including twenty in the high school jazz band; 60 in the concert band; and then there are the sixth-grade, seventh-grade and eighth-grade bands.

“A lot of times the kids come in wanting to play rock and roll, but end up liking the challenge of jazz,” Nelsen said with a smile, adding that he is constantly blown away by the dedication of the students.

Nelsen explained that since many of the student musicians are also in sports, or have other obligations, he tries not to make the program too rigorous.

While he teaches a lot of jazz, and the band he plays in during his personal time, The One More Time Band is jazz, Nelsen said he loves all kinds of music.

“What I like about jazz is its complexity,” he said. Bruno also cited the complexity of jazz when asked what attracted him to the music.

“The intricacies and complications of these scores written by such musical genius stretches one’s imagination,” Bruno explained. He added the rich history of jazz that plays out when listening to is another attraction for him.

When asked about what he envisions for the future, Nelsen paused before saying, “We could travel more, there are lots of music festivals we could attend, but that can also get complicated. I would really like to continue as we are, continued excellence.”