During this year’s Berklee High School Jazz Festival, I had the opportunity to listen to a number of outstanding high school bands. Among them was the Bacon Academy Big Band, directed by Mr. Thomas Kessler. After their performance, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Mr. Kessler about his own musical background, his school, and stories of the 26 years that he has been a part of the Berklee High school Jazz Festival. In the second part of this interview, I asked Mr. Kessler about his teaching style, and to share some memories he has of the last 26 years:
Q: How do you introduce a new chart to your band?
Tom Kessler: Sectionals are always the way to go; get the rhythm section to figure out how to drive the band, figure out some tempos, learn some chords, learn some fingerings, learn the form, send the winds away to figure out other little rhythms, form. Once they can kind of put it together, have them listen to the chart, whether it’s a demo or a pro recording, or other YouTube found recordings that could be anywhere from good to other. [Once the kids] can hear a sense of the tune, then we can begin to stylistically make some decisions on our own, after they learn some rudimentary techniques of the chart. In the old days, it was a whole lot easier to sight-read a tune; in these new days, it’s a lot harder to read a tune; my students need more time to sight-read.
Q: Why do you think that is?
Tom Kessler: That’s where we are at the level of musicianship at the school.
Q: On a philosophical level, talk about what you want to accomplish as a high school music teacher. What do you want to make sure all your students have by the time they finish with the band program?
Tom Kessler: The highlight has to be making music, and when it’s not, that means it’s not music. So it has to be making music, and therefore the highlight has to be making music. Everything else falls into that. Now, you don’t have to tell them about what that music making is, you just make the process happen, and make the performance part of the process, and make rehearsals part of the process, and it’s the music that is most important. Anything else that is not musical is secondary, and important, but not as important as making music the very best possible way you can. Unfortunately in high school, what we’re trying to do pretty much all the time is eliminate distractions: bad notes, bad pitch, a blip, a mistake, a bad attack, a bad release, non-precision. You keep working on that, maybe too much, but that’s just what you’re trying to do to make it the best music making you can. And if the kids buy into that, gee if they happen to learn something about preparation; gee if they happen to learn something about being in an ensemble, playing together, precisely well, gee that’s pretty good too, but it is the music making and the music making process from the beginning to the performance.
Q: You’ve now been at the HSJF for 26 years. Talk about some of your favorite memories and why you keep coming back.
Tom Kessler: My feet hurt one year; I was wearing a new pair of shoes, and I had a hellish hard time walking around, and it was exciting that I heard Bacon Academy’s name to be called to go play at festival finals, and I ran up in socks because man, my feet hurt pretty bad. Festival finals in the early years, going to the announcement portion, was different then that it has been recently; only directors were allowed in the room, and it was very intimidating, however festival finals were some of the greatest events that you could have, the greatest gig I could give my students was a festival finals performance in front of 2,000 screaming people, and it had absolutely nothing to do whether they won, or finished second, or in the old days third, being able to play for 2,000 people…In one of those festival finals performances, one of my students — the drummer, actually — broke his stick on the final hit, and the stick went into the audience, on the final hit…They were great memories. Great, great, great memories.