Jazz inspires confidence in Steamboat, Moffat students at Strings School Days

Josh Rzepka of the Josh Rzepka Quartet performs with members of the Steamboat Springs High School jazz band at the Strings Music Pavilion on Wednesday, March 27. Rzepka and his group members worked with Steamboat and Moffat County high school students as part of the Strings School Days program. (Photo by Mackenzie Hicks)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The smooth sounds of alto saxophones, the bright call of trumpets, the deep, heart-beat throb of an upright bass and the high notes of a piccolo could be heard Wednesday night throughout the Strings Music Pavilion.

While there was a professional jazz quartet on hand, most of the sounds were coming from Steamboat Springs and Moffat County high school band students.

The night’s concert was the culmination of Strings School Days, a music education program built by Strings Music Festival to bring Yampa Valley students and professional musicians together. The annual program, now in its 13th year, serves 3,000 students per year in 14 different schools.

“Overall, the program’s number one goal is increased positive self-esteem, and hopefully, they want to continue playing or try out a new instrument,” Katie Carroll, director of artistic administration and education for Strings, said.

Every year, the music genre changes. Previous years have seen students learning about bluegrass, funk and classical. This year, the music took a turn to the slower, more improvisational side with jazz and the Josh Rzepka Quartet, a group based out of Chicago.

Josh Rzepka, the namesake and trumpeter of the quartet, said he was originally recommended for the program by Strings Music Festival Director Michael Sachs.

“I had the opportunity to study with him a number of years ago, but this was kind of out of the blue,” Rzepka said. “It was pretty amazing to be thought of and considered for such a wonderful program — especially by a musician and trumpeter whom I admire so greatly.”

The quartet, which consists of Rzepka on trumpet, Theron Brown on piano, Zaire Darden on drums and Mike Forfia on bass, started working with students in October. For months, the group could not be in town, so they sent videos for the students to watch and practice with.

“We also picked out some music and assigned what they’d prepare for this week’s concert,” Rzepka said.

The quartet was back in town for a week to practice and rehearse with the students leading up to this week’s concert, and the experience since October has had a profound impact on the students.

Steamboat Springs High School freshman Emma Poper and sophomore Gemini Mess are both members of the concert and jazz bands and were prepped to perform improvisational solos during the concert. Both agreed the training and direction provided by the professionals musicians along with the trust placed in them to perform a solo on the fly helped build them up.

“Knowing I have to be confident and play really loud on my solo helps me with my confidence,” said Mess, who plays the clarinet.

And, both young musicians agreed the fun, spunky tempo of jazz brought something new to their usual repertoire.

“Jazz — you have to put your heart and soul into it,” Poper said.

Steamboat Springs High School music teacher Wendy Dillon loves how the program not only shows students what they can be in the future but also highlights what she sees every day when working with them.

“It reinforces what I tell them every day,” Dillon said. “They know it, but it helps to hear it from someone else, especially a professional musician.”

The experience has also had an impact on Rzepka as he’s watched students grow.

“They’ve all got such great attitudes and a willingness to hear and implement new ideas — even if they are outside their comfort zones,” Rzepka said.

Throughout the performance multiple students played their solos with their own style, some even dancing with their saxophones and trombones as the music overtook them. Their confidence seemed to grow as, one by one, they stepped forward to perform in front of family, friends and community members there to hear the show.

“Music brings us together as a community,” Carroll said. “We live in such a Netflix culture right now, and the power of music in the moment is unmatched.”

This phenomenon was definitely on display when the Steamboat jazz band closed the show to thunderous applause with their performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”

“When you encourage, inspire and support young musicians, it always gives a greater return than what was put in,” Rzepka said. 

To reach Mackenzie Hicks, email, call 970-871-4208 or follow her on Twitter @MackenzieShawna.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.