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Exceptional Student Jazz- The Reno Youth Orchestra

by Chuck Reider

When I heard that six Washoe County School District jazz students made Nevada All State ensembles and all of them members of the Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra (RYJO) I knew I had to touch base with RYJO Director Vern Scarbrough.  Vern and his wife Karen founded RYJO in 2006 and each year RYJO’s program has grown.  The RYJO season starts in October when open student auditions are held.  Last year’s RYJO students are not automatically accepted, but rather audition and earn their position in the band each year.  Weekly rehearsals begin in November and performances begin shortly after.  RYJO has opened the Reno Jazz Orchestra’s holiday concert each year since 2006.  Scarbrough believes jazz education is best served through performances and he keeps the RYJO performance schedule full with fifteen to twenty performances each season.  The RYJO I band has eight engagements remaining on the calendar this season that include the Reno Jazz Festival and summer concerts in Yerington and Reno.  They end their season with an annual Artown performance at the Hawkins Amphitheater.  They also perform for private events, two upcoming are at Montreux and the El Dorado.  In addition to the two RYJO student big bands, the Scarbroughs are starting two RYJO small combos this spring under the direction of Doug Coomler.  With all these activities it can be difficult to keep all the band positions filled for each performance.  One reason is once a student gains experience and becomes more skilled they are offered new playing opportunities which may conflict with the RYJO schedule.  Though this makes Scarbrough’s job more challenging he recognizes it reflects on the success of the RYJO program.  When a position cannot be filled for a performance he hires professional local jazz musicians to fill in.  It costs some money but it also provides an experience to the rest of the RYJO band.  They get to perform next to a professional who sets an example of what “good is”.  Every musician can tell you what it meant to them to hear an exceptional player first hand.

When Scarbrough learned that five RYJO members earned spots in the All-State Jazz Band and RYJO’s vocalist in All-State Choir he was thrilled.  Why?  In years past, northern Nevada students would typically earn one or two spots in the state jazz ensemble because of the strong jazz program at the Las Vegas Academy.  Vocalist Carolena McGrapth from Damonte HS will be the choir’s alto section leader.  The northern Nevada All-State Jazz Band representatives are Trumpeter Will Casaceli from Reno HS who earned the lead trumpet chair.  Joining him will be trombonist Brant Luevano of McQueen HS, altoist Ben Ghusn of Galena HS, tenor saxophonist Chaz Dunn of Reed HS, and guitarist Blake Shane also of McQueen HS.  The All-State Music Festival runs April 11th through the 14th at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Congratulations to all!

Vern Scarbrough came to love jazz by performing in jazz ensembles while attending UNR.  That love grew when he went on to North Texas State to earn his Bachelor of Music degree with a minor in music education.  He remembers the time he knew he wanted to become a teacher and that he would be good at it.  It was during a pedagogy class.  First, let’s refresh our memory.  Pedagogy is the study of the method and practice of teaching. Teaching teachers how to teach.  During class, his instructor would show the class videos of students practicing instruments and the class was to discuss and identify areas for improvement.  It was then he realized he knew more about pedagogy than any other student in the room.  An educator was born!  The first eleven years he taught ten beginning bands throughout the county, followed by seven years at Pine Middle School.  During this time, he earned a Masters Degree from South Oregon University, an intense three-year program.  Unfortunately, a teacher’s salary was not enough to raise his family so he left teaching to work full time for Nevada’s National Guard.  That was when Karen Scarbrough saw that Vern missed teaching and she came up with the idea to create RYJO and, as they say, the rest is history.  In 2016 Vern was assigned a year’s tour of duty in Kuwait and Iraq as the Commander of a Logistics Brigade.  Next time you see him be sure to thank him for his service to our country.  He retired from the National Guard last year and is back teaching middle school and deeply involved with RYJO.

Through the support of the community the Scarbroughs continue to grow RYJO.  Here is what is next.  This coming fall they are adding a third band as they regularly have to turn away thirty or more students who audition but do not make either RYJO bands.  There are only so many spots. To keep those students engaged, they came up with the idea of an entry level third band.  This band is more a classroom to prepare these students to take the next step to a RYJO performing band.  A new CD is in the works as well and Scarbrough is very much looking forward to working with Tanglewood Productions to record RYJO.  Their first CD commemorated RYJO’s tenth anniversary and he was on his year tour of duty and missed out on all the aspects of producing that CD.  Karen and Vern Scarbrough wish to thank the generosity of the community that supports all they do.  To learn more about RYJO visit their website where, by the way, you can purchase their CD Decade.  I can’t thank the Scarbroughs enough as they keep America’s original art form, jazz, young!

Shortly after finishing this column I learned the Reno music community lost Leonard Neidhold.    I had the privilege of performing with Leonard for over twenty years both with the Reno Jazz Orchestra and the Reno Philharmonic.  Though a consumate musician, his true gift to all who knew him was his joy in sharing what he knew and loved with fellow musicians, his students, and most importantly family and friends.  I do not have words that can express how we feel about his passing so I will borrow from the great Duke Ellington, We Love You Madly.  And Leonard we always will.

Chuck Reider is the director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

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