NMH students to perform at Berklee high school jazz fest

  • From left to right: Edward Pan, Cate Byrne, Danny Chen, Miles Kaming-Thanassi and Jacob Smith are the five Northfield Mount Hermon School students who will be competing at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. —Contributed photo/Sharon Lindale

  • From left to right: Jacob Smith, Miles Kaming-Thanassi, Cate Byrne, Danny Chen and Edward Pan are the five Northfield Mount Hermon School students who will be competing at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. —Contributed photo/Sharon Lindale

Recorder Staff
Saturday, February 10, 2018

GILL — Five Northfield Mount Hermon School students will find themselves performing in the country’s largest high school jazz competition on Saturday.

Electric violinist Cate Byrne, trumpeter Miles Kaming-Thanassi, saxophonist Danny Chen, pianist Edward Pan and drummer Jacob Smith will compete in the “small combo” division of Berklee College of Music’s 50th annual Berklee High School Jazz Festival, according to Ronald Smith, director of NMH’s band and jazz programs.

“It’s a great platform for me to bring my students to and give them that experience of this level of music for high school students around the country,” Smith said.

High stakes

The festival, to be held at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., will include performances by more than 3,000 high school students who comprise more than 215 bands and vocal ensembles from 13 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to the college.

All ensembles — either big bands of 16 to 18 students, or small combos of four to eight students — will be judged by a panel of Berklee’s top faculty, and receive a written critique of their performances, Smith said.

The stakes are high for students looking to pursue music in the long term. Top-ranked groups will be awarded partial scholarships to Berklee’s five-week summer program, and individual students will be invited to audition for tuition scholarships toward the full-time program or the five-week summer program.

Smith, himself a Berklee graduate, said his students are in the S2 category (with “S” standing for small group ensembles), along with six or eight other groups they’ll compete against. First, second and third places are awarded in each category, Smith said, as well as an honorable mention.

Smith said his students will play three selections: “Scrapple From the Apple” and “’Round Midnight,” both by Charlie Parker, and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ version of “A Night in Tunisia.”

A life-changing experience

This year will be the third year NMH students have participated, Smith said. NMH has received second place and honorable mention before, having competed with a small combo last year and a big band in 2016, and two NMH students have also been deemed the overall best soloist.

“It has been phenomenal, amazing, almost life-changing,” he said. “It gives (the students) a really good, in-depth look at themselves (and) if they really want to pursue music like jazz.”

To compete, Smith said, band directors register their groups, with the college choosing which ones to accept “based on the size of your school and the instruments you have.” His group, he said, is considered a Grade 5½ advanced jazz combo, with Grade 6 being collegiate level.

NMH also has a jazz ensemble and jazz combo, with students auditioning to be in the advanced group at the start of the school year. The five students specifically train to go to competitions, and Smith thinks they have a good chance at the Berklee festival.

“The unique thing about my group that’s going to make it different from, I feel like any other group, is my jazz violinist. … She probably will be the only jazz violinist in the whole thing.”

Setting herself apart

Violinists, like 17-year-old NMH senior Cate Byrne, aren’t common in jazz, Smith said, with banjos being a more popular string instrument in the genre. Byrne, of Readsboro, Vt., has been playing violin for 13 years, and electric violin since eighth grade.

“When I was young, my parents wanted me to pick up an instrument but I could choose which one,” Byrne said. “Apparently I picked a violin because I thought it was a cute instrument!”

But Byrne quickly found she enjoyed playing, especially jazz music, which she said offers “a really cool way to express one’s own creativity with improvisation.”

When Smith approached Byrne and her classmates about competing in the Berklee festival, she was over the moon.

“I got really excited,” she said. “It could be seen as a little intimidating going up against so many schools and so many talented students, but I’m not viewing it not so much as a competition as going to have fun.”

Because Berklee College of Music is one of her top choices of colleges — and she’s already been accepted — the festival offers a great opportunity for her to earn a scholarship.

Regardless of ranking and awards, Smith said attending the festival is a meaningful, inspiring experience for students.

“Overall, what they take away from it is the quality and exposure,” he said. “It’s guaranteed that they’ll all come back saying, ‘I need to get better. I need to practice my instrument.’”

Reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 257