Inside the Instrumental Studio

by Maya Held, Linden Runnels and Nicolas Rimalovski

Mr. Ricks’ first period jazz ensemble.

The time is 7:55 a.m. and students are filing through the main glass doors of Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA), rushing to get to their first-period classes on time. A cacophony of musical sounds is already filtering out of room 401. If one listens closely, the prominent tones of saxophones, trumpets, drums, and the faint tinkling of a piano in the background can be heard.

A man strolls in, a steaming cup of coffee in hand, and room 401 immediately falls silent. Neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and loose-fitting jeans, he quickly takes his place at the podium with an air of confident impatience.

 “Everyone knows their solos for Aqua de Bebre?” he brusquely asks. He is met with silence. None of the students bother to answer the question, understanding that it was purely rhetorical.

In Mr. Ricks’ jazz studio, knowing your solo part (and knowing it well) is a given. 

“Good, let’s get started. Two, three, four…,” he commands.

The band erupts into sound. But, just a few seconds later, Mr. Ricks firmly raises his arm and the music stops, except for a few lingering notes. The musicians wear sheepish expressions, knowing that there’s already a problem with their playing.

It’s going to be a long class. 

“I need clear articulation from the saxes, that voicing has to come through,” he orders. In music, “articulation” refers to the spacing between the notes, and Mr. Ricks wants it to be exact.

Mr. Ricks’ job is to orchestrate the fine-tuning of FSSA’s jazz band. A misplayed note or slightly rushed rhythm section can throw off the whole band.It is expected that each player flawlessly execute their part; and Mr. Ricks needs to make sure each player understands how their part fits in with the other instruments.

He also needs to maintain the tempo for the band so that all the instruments — when played together — create a smooth, satisfying piece of music. Mr. Ricks keeps an eye on the music as a whole while the students work on their individual parts.

In FSSA’s jazz studio, standards are exceedingly high, as they are in the rest of the instrumental program. Musicians at FSSA are expected to practice multiple hours each day and be fully prepared for class, with some students even losing points for not having a pencil. 

As if meeting these standards weren’t hard enough, this year has its own unique challenges for Mr. Ricks and the jazz students.

“We’ve never had Jazz Band first period,” he exclaimed. “Having a major ensemble, like Jazz Band, first period is not conducive for anyone, because we need the kids to show up and they need to be really warmed up. It’s difficult music as it is.”

The bell rings, signaling the end of the first period. For the jazz students, their class with Mr. Ricks might be over, but the students have plenty of music left for the rest of the day.

Music courses at FSSA range from small methods classes to full ensembles, with instrumental majors having at least two studio classes a day. Some musicians, like senior Honoko Saeki, who is an Instrumental Student Representative and flute section leader, even dedicate their free periods to practicing in the building’s stairwells. For the last three years, Honoko has devoted four hours a day to her music.

“I wake up and go to my methods class, do a little bit of technique work, and then practice my solo a little bit. I do a little bit of chamber music, [and] help out Mr. Kronenberg with his instruments,” she said. 

Honoko encapsulated what it takes to be an FSSA instrumental major in a single word — “musicianship.”

“You have to enjoy music,” she added.

Mr. K. commands the Symphonic Orchestra, which includes more than 80 instrumentalists.

The bell for third-period rings and half of the instrumental studio rushes into room 401, which swells with students once again. Nowhere is the cohesive nature of the department better exemplified than in the Symphonic Orchestra. The orchestra is the largest of the ensembles offered at FSSA, with more than 80 students packed into room 401.

The various sections sit shoulder to shoulder, with conductor Mr. Kronenberg standing at the helm. An enthusiastic horn player as well as a fastidious teacher, Mr. Kronenberg (simply known as “Mr. K” to his students) works hard not only to improve the orchestra but to better his students’ individual abilities and help prepare them for a future in music.

“You learn your instrument to the point where you can be accepted into most college programs in the country,” he asserted.

The goal for Mr. K is to see his students succeed while they are at Sinatra, and when they leave, go on to pursue the next phase of their lives, whether or not they choose a career in music.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 took a toll on the level of musicianship entering the school in the past couple of years.

 “The middle school programs have been decimated,” Mr. Kronenberg explained. “The pool of students feeding into the school [FSSA] has gotten smaller.”

Small, sectional practices are common among the instrumental studio.

The pandemic has forced the entire music department to pivot their focus to the fundamentals of music as the incoming freshmen are less experienced in playing more advanced music. 

“I’m lucky that I work with mostly upperclassmen,” Mr. Kronenberg said. “By the time they get to me, they have a better grasp of their instruments and musicianship, but I have noticed that some of the kids, well, their level of musicianship is not as advanced. Kids here like progressing though. It usually goes pretty fast.” 

Sophomore violist Stella Kollmansberger adds that this progress doesn’t happen without hard work and dedication from the students.

“It gets intense…all the practicing,” she explained. “For shows, we don’t usually get blackouts anymore so we practice really just whenever we can.” 

Despite the tedious repetition involved in practicing music, Stella still finds ways to enjoy her craft.

“I play the viola at school, but the best musical release for me is on the piano. I write music for the piano, and although I have taken lessons, it’s a much more independent thing for me. I can separate it from my school musical experience,.” she adds.

Stella is not alone in having a musical life outside of school. Many FSSA instrumental students take private lessons, play in city bands, or attend precollege music programs.

Tierno Thiam, a member of the Youth Orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center, spoke about the total dedication required to be a musician.

“Music is a 24/7 commitment. There’s really no other way to put it. When I’m not doing school work, I’m practicing or playing music,” Tierno said.

Honoko offered an explanation as to why so many FSSA instrumental students spend so much of their time playing music: “I don’t think a lot of [Sinatra] musicians are ever satisfied with their playing,” she said.

That dissatisfaction accounts for the high standards and work ethic of both the students and teachers in the FSSA instrumental program.

In music, there’s always something to work on and improve.