Folsom High School music director Curtis Gaesser has long dreamed of having a magnet arts school in the El Dorado Hills-El Dorado County-Folsom-Granite Bay area.
In the 28 years he has been in at Folsom High School, Gaesser has developed a national model of music education excellence. The music program includes three jazz bands, two jazz choirs, marching band and color guard, two orchestras, concert band and drum line.
Downbeat Magazine awarded the Jazz Band 1 “Best High School Big Band” eight times since 1993, including the last five years. The Jazz Choir 1 received “Best High School Vocal Jazz Group” 15 times since 1994, including the last 12 years.
In 2003 Folsom High School was named a Grammy Signature School, recognizing that its music program was among the nation’s 20 best for quality, fundraising, curriculum and the level of technology and instruments available to students. In 2008 Folsom was selected as one of the Best Communities for Music Education by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation, one of only two towns in California to be acknowledged.
Sacramento Magazine, in 2010, named the Folsom High School Marching Band and Color Guard Best Marching Band. In 2008, Sacramento News and Review designated Folsom High a JAMMIES Signature School.
The jazz ensembles have performed throughout Europe, including Folsom’s sister city in Italy, Crespano del Grappa, and at the Umbria Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. At California’s Monterey Jazz Festival, they have been invited to compete and won several first-place awards. In 2006 the jazz band opened for the Count Basie Orchestra.
However, as great as the music program is, there are constraints. There is only so much space and time for students. Aspiring music students outside the Folsom Cordova Unified School District have only a slight chance of transferring to Folsom High.
“Music education is such a must for young people. So many things are taught through music, such as how to work as a group towards a common goal of excellence,” Gaesser said. “Understanding one’s place in the group and the roles each one plays within the group are vital for maximum success in performance. If one wants to master an instrument or voice, it takes a lot of practice and immersion into the music culture to understand how vast and deep music education is. The playing of jazz is a step up from playing notes on the page. Improvisation is really the essence of jazz music. When students play an improvised solo, it is from the depths of their brains, ears and soul, and it’s played out there for all to listen.
“That’s a huge step for young people. In the beginning, they are nervous because they care what others think of their solos, but as they grow they find out that they really only care how they feel about their solos. When they get older and are making presentations in a professional business setting, the times playing jazz with a group and playing solos will help them to be confident. They will understand that in order to be good at anything, it takes dedication, time and practice. Failure will happen but tomorrow is another performance.”
Spurred on by the prospect of losing the high school music program as a result of future state budget cuts, Gaesser took matters in hand and prepared to create a magnet school where local children could still have the opportunity to explore and expand their passion for music and other arts.
Roll Hills Arts Academy opened this fall, with classes beginning on Nov. 1. It is located in Rolling Hills Christian Church in El Dorado Hills.
However, before he could open Roll Hill Arts Academy, Gaesser had to set up the structure. That took 18 months. He has been a Worship team member at Rolling Hills Christian Church for 13 years and is currently music director there. He said Senior Pastor Jeff Bigelow shared his vision and wanted to fill the gap in arts education. The church’s meeting rooms are ideal for classes and the auditorium for performances. The two men agreed on how the school would integrate into the church space and schedule.
“Roll Hill Arts Academy is not affiliated with the church,” said Gaesser. “The school is a 501(c)(3) corporation.”
Gaesser is an example of his own teaching. Growing up in the beachside town of Kailua on the windward side of Oahu, 30 minutes from Honolulu, Gaesser received his first instrument, an ukulele, in fifth grade. By sixth grade the teacher let the young Gaesser teach the class.
He became interested in jazz in seventh grade at Kalaheo High School. His teacher Hugh Miller was a jazz saxophone player. “I started listening and playing jazz music every minute of every day. My grandfather was also a jazz pianist and exposed me to many older jazz pianists like Kenny Baron and Art Tatum,” he said. He played saxophone from seventh through 12th grades.
In 1977 Gaesser’s family moved to El Dorado Hills. His father had a sheet metal business in Hawaii, and Sacramento was starting to boom. He entered Ponderosa High School as a junior, where there was a large and strong music program directed by Roy Fulmer and Lorna Perpal. He played in the jazz band and other musical groups for his final two years of high school.
He went on to study music at Sacramento State University, where he concentrated on both classical and jazz performance. Upon graduation, he joined the Folsom Cordova Unified School District and became music director at Folsom High School.
“The Roll Hill Arts Academy has a different approach to music and art education,” Gaesser said. “Standards are taught, but performance and authentic assessment are essential in order to make the standards intrinsic within the students. Only the best teachers around are on staff and the rigor brought to the school through their knowledge will take this academy to amazing levels in student performances.”
In addition to Gaesser, there are 11 teaching staff at Roll Hill Arts Academy. They teach voice drawing and painting, instrumentals, piano, guitar, drums and trumpet.
Even though they have just come together, Gaesser is entering his 21-member Roll Hill Arts Academy jazz band in competition. He is preparing them to compete at the Folsom Jazz Festival on Jan. 28 at Rolling Hills Church, the Reno Jazz Festival on April 28, 2012, and for a spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The high school competition at Monterey will be held April 1, 2012. “There are hundreds of applications. They accept 12 high school bands and five magnet school bands. It’s really competitive,” he said.
At the jazz band’s second weekly meeting, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, one of the songs the band was learning to master is called “Extra Credit.” It’s a complex piece with many solos, usually given to college students. The musicians listened to a recording of a college band performance, including a solo that made Gaesser wince. “That’s the worst trombone solo I ever heard,” he told his band.
After hearing the college version, the band members set out their sheet music and began to play. At the end of the session, Gaesser told them, “We only have a few more meetings before the holidays. Then we’re going to record our audition tape for Monterey in early January. You’re all great musicians. Practice. You can do it.”
As the band members put away chairs and tables, Gaesser said, “These students are just learning to play together. They come from Folsom, Granite Bay, Ponderosa, Vista del Lago and Oak Ridge. By the end of the year they’ll be bonded.”
One of the band members is Austin Gaesser, Curtis’s youngest son, who plays baritone saxophone.
Austin also plays in the Folsom High School Jazz Band 1 and sings bass in the Jazz Choir 1. “This is the last year we’ll be together, so every event is special,” said Gaesser. Daughter Lesley played flute at Oak Ridge High School and recently graduated from the Art Institute with a degree in art and graphic design. Daughter Erin played saxophone in the Oak Ridge band. His wife, Lisa, has a background in interior design. They met at Sacramento State.
At the same time Gaesser was filling the hall with the music of the jazz band, Jeff Carter’s 13 art students were concentrating on still life objects in a dimly lit and silent room. Carter teaches art at Folsom High School. He earned a fine arts degree at Sonoma State University and has continued to study at the Art Institute of San Francisco and Sacramento State University. He was district Teacher of the Year in 2008.
Carter quietly went from student to student, giving pointers. “The students are building their art chops here,” he said. “They are painting with oils, which are not generally used in public schools. They are learning to control the medium and to use immediate observation to build forms. They have two hours from start to finish.”
In describing his approach, Carter said, “My dream is to offer exceptional art training to artists of all ages in the Sacramento region. The Roll Hill Arts Academy accepts a wide range of young and adult artists with varying art backgrounds. I strive to ensure that students objectively improve their own art techniques. Students are guaranteed to push themselves and learn a lot in a fun environment.”
Current offerings at Roll Hill Arts Academy are Jazz Band, Drawing and Painting, and Individual Lessons.
Gaesser sees the school expanding into dancing, drama, lighting, sound, stage design and beyond. “I’d like us to do ‘Idol’-type competitions. There isn’t anything we can’t do.” Facing a daunting schedule, Gaesser said, “I have good people around me. I don’t have to worry about anything.”
Part of his dream is to provide for students who need assistance. “Roll Hill Arts Academy was set up as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation so we can accept donations to build the program. I’d like to be able to offer scholarships and provide instruments for kids who need financial help,” he said. Donations can be mailed to: Roll Hill Arts Academy, Donations, P.O. Box 5635, El Dorado Hills, CA 95763-1464.
Roll Hill Arts Academy is located at 800 White Rock Road, west of Latrobe Road. For more information visit rollhillartsacademy.com or call (530) ART-5087.