Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Andrew Nemethy is a freelance writer and editor from the town of Calais.
For 21 years, discord and cacophony have been music to the ears of Bruce Sklar.
Where others might hear flat notes and off-tempos, Sklar hears potential and the distant harmonies and rhythms – musical and social – that will come for his students after a semester of intense high school practice together.
Welcome to the life of a band teacher.
Sklar is an exemplar of the breed. As the jazz band and music technology teacher at Harwood Union High School in Duxbury, his gift for music works its wonders on an unpredictable mix of trombone and trumpet, saxophone and flute, drum and piano players, turning them into a tight, award-winning troupe.
Year after year, his bands take top awards at the annual High School Jazz Festival. He’s twice been recognized by the Vermont Legislature and his players and bands have taken first place three times at a competition attended by hundreds of jazz teachers at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Watch Sklar at work and you’ll see what he does is somewhere between working magic and herding cats. It’s a process inspired both by an abiding belief that students will “get” it, from musical tempo to harmony and improv, and the larger understanding that music is an important universal language that speaks to us all.
Sklar uses a quote from legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey to make his point: “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.”
“It happens to me, too,” he says. “If I’m having a lousy day, and I sit down at the piano, I’m pretty much straightened out. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s real.”
For Sklar and dozens of high school band brethren around Vermont, what they do is more than just teaching. Even if the students don’t quite make beautiful music together, Sklar says there are life lessons to be taken from the band room: How to work together, how to really work at something, and learning that practice makes perfect.
“Practice is a discipline, and we talk a lot about that, especially in jazz education,” he explains. “A solid foundation and knowledge of scales is the gateway to becoming a great player.”
His decades of teaching have also taught him that for many students in the throes of high school angst and uncertainty about their place, the band room is a “refuge,” a place of affirmation that he says “undoubtedly saved their butts.”
“It’s something they can do well in. It teaches them how to be a successful human being with the talents they have,” he says, and when struggling students find inspiration and success in music, he says it often opens doors for him to talk about their difficulties in school or bad choices they might be making.
On this day early in the semester at Harwood, Sklar weaves together a mix of routine and reflection, the organizational and the aspirational, on the one hand explaining schedules and a commitment to not missing practice, on the other talking about advanced musical concepts and how music ties to life.
Speaking on the dim stage of a cavernous dark auditorium to 16 students in his “A” band (the best jazz players), he riffs on attendance discipline, saying he knows athletes will have game or practice conflicts some times but that it’s their responsibility to work out conflicts.
“I’ll always meet you halfway on this,” he says.
Minutes later he is off on a tangent, mentioning how the band will work with student jazz vocalists and what that means in terms of tempo and how backing up a singer means more than just learning the notes to tunes from Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn.
“What I’m looking for is your intense sense of rhythm. A sense of rhythm is very, very important in jazz,” he says. At another point, talking about the blues scale and its historical roots in African and other musical traditions, he refers to it as a “language” they need to learn.
“You don’t just want to run the notes up and down. You want to have a good feel,” he explains. “It’s really all about what goes on up here,” he says, emphatically pointing to his head with both hands.
Music has been in his head all his life. Like the catchy Cole Porter standard,”Night and Day,” Sklar leads two busy lives, The day side is teaching and spreading the gospel of music. The night side is playing accomplished jazz piano with well-known bands and jazz players in Vermont and beyond.
He graduated from UMass in 1980 with a Bachelor of Music, but he’s been steeped in music and in music technology from his high school days in Newton, Mass. What brought him to Vermont was a chance to join the band Peer Pressure in 1984, and what kept him here was marriage to Alice Wilson, whose father Leonard Wilson was the respected head of the Vermont Environmental Board. The Wilson’s well-known family lived in Waitsfield, one of the five towns in the Harwood Union school district, and Sklar has been here ever since.
Sklar has played with an eclectic list of greats, from the Duke Ellington band and Sandra Wright to such Vermont performers as Grace Potter and Trey Anastasio. Most Vermonters will know him from his long ties with the Grippo Funk Band, whose sax player Dave Grippo is a fellow high school jazz instructor for the Burlington High School district.
On his web site (brucesklar.com), Sklar notes that “Learning jazz is learning a highest-level communication skill. It is a lifelong quest for ways to express the human condition.
“A jazz performance even in its simplest form requires the involvement and co-ordination of intellect, ear, eye, hand, emotion, inspiration and creativity. It involves left and right brain in concert.”
Sklar daily translates that belief into action as he sits in his small bustling office at Harwood, cluttered with computers and monitors. Wearing a boldly patterned Hawaiian shirt, he’s at ease amid the discordant sounds of choruses warming up, saxophones wailing in practice rooms and students coming and going. One minute he’s bent over a monitor focusing a student on his musical task on a computer, another he’s discussing a female vocalist’s questions about her jazz song.
It’s worth noting that Sklar the teacher is also a student himself: He’s now enrolled at the Vermont College of Fine Arts getting a master of fine arts and composition. He recently premiered his reinterpretation of the Clifford Brown tune “Daahoud,” giving it a catchy afro-Cuban twist with the big band sounds of the Vermont Jazz Ensemble. His students will learn to play it this semester.
The fact he lives myriad intertwined lives as a student, performer, musician, and composer have a lot to do with his success with the students in the Harwood program, he says.
“I think I’m very attuned to what a kid can actually accomplish, and I am sensitive to when to push,” he explains.
And when his teaching words run up against a wall, he says he turns to the best form of inspiration he knows: sitting down at the piano and letting his fingers do the talking, in the universal language of music.
Andrew Nemethy of Calais is a freelance writer and editor.