Something told Michael Montalto to hold off on applying for the Berklee High School Jazz Festival for just one more year.
The Bordentown Regional School District director of bands was in his seventh year overseeing the program, and over that time he saw the constant improvement of his students. Children who started off just learning how to grip their instruments in his fourth grade classes were now playing fluently as high school upperclassmen. Their skills warranted more opportunities, and the 50th annual Berklee High School Jazz Festival last year in Boston fit the bill.
Still, Montalto held off on plans to compete until this year—and the hunch paid off. Last month, he and his 22-student jazz ensemble finished second in its pool of 16 bands. The festival, a collection of 150-plus high school bands from 15 different states at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, exposed the students to new levels of competition, and vindicated years of practice.
“It’s a pretty prestigious festival, and there were a lot of great bands across the country, so we were honored just to have gotten to place,” Montalto said.
The festival is a one-day competition involving big bands, combos and vocal jazz ensembles performing for a panel of Berklee’s faculty members. Each ensemble is given a written critique from the panel, who also select the finalists from six categories separated by school size.
For the 18-minute, three-song performance, the Bordentown team was awarded second place, and received three awards for individual performances: junior trumpeter Samantha MacFarlane and sophomore alto saxophonist Nikolas Romano received “Outstanding Musicianship” awards, and sophomore vibraphonist Nick Demkowicz received the ensemble’s “Judges Choice” award. As part of the awards, the trio were award partial scholarships to the college’s summer programs.
MacFarlane, who had never participated in a competitive event beyond annual regional performances, found herself caught completely off-guard by not just her individual award, but the panel’s acknowledgement of the Bordentown team itself.
“I think that it really was an eye-opener for Bordentown, for how we stand compared to other ensembles,” she said. “I feel like we’re the ‘little band that could.’”
That’s not to say the ensemble didn’t already have a competitive streak. Despite coming from a smaller district and having what she called “less [of a] pool to choose talent from,” MacFarlane noted the Bordentown team includes a heavy dose of marching band members who have had plenty of experience competing and performing.
Montalto put no pressure on the band members to win or even place—just to give their best performance. When they left their performance room at the Hynes Convention Center that day, there was already a buzz of excitement among the students; they gave their best.
“When we took two of the four individual awards, I realized we might actually win our group,” Montalto said. “That’s amazing, because some of those bands have been doing this for 30, 40 years.”
Aside from the successes, the students were also given some invaluable courses on their craft. The event offered them attendance to faculty performances, seminars, and classes. Both MacFarlane and Romano highlighted an improvisation course taught by Jeff Coffin, a noted composer and saxophonist for the Dave Matthews Band.
“It was a really fun time,” Romano said. “The whole trip was a great experience. It was just being around friends and music for the weekend. Music is something I really work hard towards becoming better at, and to have that recognized is a great feeling.”
Montalto wants to see shades of the successful weekend carry over to another out-of-town event: the ensemble will also be attending the annual Essentially Ellington program at the Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy, Philadelphia. The event will be the ensemble’s fourth consecutive year participating.
So as long as their administration and community continues to support the trip, the team would love to make a tradition out of the annual Berklee festival as well.
After Essentially Ellington, the ensemble will have just their spring concert in May remaining on their calendar. For four seniors, it will be their last performance with Montalto and the Bordentown team—at a time when that begins to mean a bit more to their teacher. He’s had most of the ensemble’s members in his classes since at least sixth grade, when the program was smaller, struggling to find success on its own. Now, he hopes those long-term students especially enjoy the recognition.
“Next year will be last year of kids I’ve had since beginning year,” Montalto said. “I’ve seen them grow up—it’s crazy. It’s not a part of the job where a lot of teachers get to experience it. Math teachers don’t have their students for more than a year. It’s really rewarding.”
MacFarlane is among that last start-to-finish class. Montalto actually taught her the trumpet in fourth grade. In nearly a decade, she was part of a program’s growth to nationally competitive standards. And their success at Berklee has them focused on taking even another step forward.
“It was just a great experience for us,” MacFarlane said. “I think that it allowed us, or even gave us the drive to be better, like all the musicians we saw.”
Montalto thanked the administration and community for their continued support of the program, and the Berklee organizers and faculty for the weekend. But he mostly thanked his students, for showing the drive and commitment that confirmed to him that this was certainly the year to begin competing. They may have just set the bar for the coming classes.
“They’re 22 great kids,” Montalto said. “I’m proud not only of how they played, but how they acted and conducted themselves. They showed class, and that’s something important to me.”