A Band Revival
Led By One Energetic Teacher, The Branciforte Middle and Harbor High Bands Come Back from the Brink
By Suki Wessling
Nick Bianchini, band teacher at Branciforte Middle and Harbor High School in Santa Cruz, stands to the side as his band students perform. The Multi-Purpose Room at Harbor is filled to capacity. At the front of the room, horns, woodwinds, percussion, and strings cram into a space built for much smaller gatherings. An enthusiastic audience perches on chairs and benches and applauds each of the combos from Harbor and Branciforte.
Someone who stumbled in from the outside might think that the bands were part of a long-running tradition. But it hasn’t always been this way.
“When I first started it was around 19-20 students in the Harbor band,” remembers Bianchini, who started a full-time position split between the two schools four years ago.
“If you looked at the musical literacy of the students, how they understand theory, their technical ability, some students could play but the musicianship was not high. At B40 there were about 25 kids in the advanced band. There was just chaos in the classroom, middle school chaos!”
Four years later, both programs have tripled in size, and the energetic young teacher hasn’t stopped there. Altogether, he leads Beginning and Advanced Bands at Branciforte, Concert Band at Harbor, and after-school Jazz Band at Harbor.
“He’s got two schools, all these students,” says Shondra, whose son Casey is in the Harbor Concert and Jazz Bands. “I have no idea how he keeps it straight! Somehow he finds a way to keep the kids having fun but also giving them enough technique so they can improve on the instrument they’re taking.”
Music education in Santa Cruz County was strong in the Seventies, re- members Soquel High band teacher Jim Stewart, who himself graduated from Soquel High. “Soquel had a big band—all the schools had big band programs then. When I came back to Soquel in 96, the Harbor program had been struggling for a while and Soquel’s was shrinking. When I took it over we had 30 kids.”
One of Stewart’s students was a young Nick Bianchini, who distinguished himself from the pack.
“He was a really hard worker—I remember him complaining that he did- n’t have enough time to practice and he needed to practice more,” Stewart says. “He was one of the best players I’ve ever had but he was also one of the most humble.”
Stewart wasn’t surprised when Bianchini left for Los Angeles to continue his music education and become a jazz performer. That said, he isn’t surprised, either, that a person like Bianchini would come back and blossom as an educator.
“It’s the impact that you have on people,” Stewart explains. “If you’re really a people person, it’s not so much about music as it is about being with people and having an impact on their lives. Performing music is awesome and fun and fulfilling in its own way, but teaching has that deeper impact on other humans.”
Other humans are clearly responding on the musical level. Not only has enrollment in the bands exploded, but Bianchini was thrilled to announce that this year a record number of students from one school had qualified for the Central Coast Honor Band— 18 students from Branciforte.
The reason for that is not private music instruction—95% of the students do not take private lessons. Bianchini’s focus on musicianship has paid off.
“Almost all the kids come in not knowing what music is, not having any inspiration to play music,” Bianchini explains. “Then they find out music is really hard, and the challenge is to help them push through to find the right motivation. You need to get them to see that if they work hard, music can be an enjoyable and rewarding thing to pursue.”
On the personal side, Shondra’s son Casey says that despite the large number, students feel valued as individuals.
“From my understanding compared to a lot about other band directors, they care about the band as a whole rather than the students—Nick cares about both,” Casey says. “He had a student having a bad day, they didn’t come to jazz band, and he called them and said, Hey, what’s up?”
Clearly, music education in Santa Cruz is something built by—or neglected by—the community. Bianchini points out that after arts instruction in
the schools was decimated first by funding cuts and then by No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on academics, it was the community that brought back the money and the support. Generations of musicians learn in our schools, then return to teach a new generation.
Ironically, hard research supporting the connection between arts education and student success started to pour out during those dark days when school performance was only measured by a multiple choice test.
Bianchini remembers himself as one data point.
“I had many challenges in elementary school academically. I had trouble reading and writing, and some trouble in math. After a couple of years playing music, when I got to middle school, my comprehension level and all my academic test scores and grades—my ability to understand the information I was being given—improved. I feel that music taught me so many skills, helped to develop my brain.”
The moral of the story is that a life trajectory like Nick Bianchini’s is what comes of well-rounded schools that support education of the whole child. School funding in California remains low compared to other states, and arts programs are always the first to to be discussed when cuts need to be made. Some schools in the county still lack the comprehensive music programs they lost in the 90s and early 2000s.
Branciforte and Harbor are basking in the success, not of one teacher who decided to come back home, but of generations of support of music for all. When any student can walk into the band room on the first day of school, pick up an instrument that their family may not be able to afford, and gain a free education in a discipline that helps open their mind to all kinds of academic learning, that’s when our public schools are succeeding.
“I’ve found so much love and goodness and fun playing music myself, so I thought, let’s see if I can give some of that to the next generation in Santa Cruz,” Bianchini explains.
He seems to be succeeding.
Suki Wessling is a local writer and par- ent. Her free public school music education led to a lifelong pursuit of music, currently with the local jazz ensemble Persephone. She has written books on homeschooling and blogs about parenting and education. Learn more at www.SukiWessling.com.