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’Chaug student joins country’s elite All-National Jazz Band

Date: 10/24/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM – On Oct. 27, Diana Gerberich is getting on an airplane for the first time in her life.

That, in and of itself, could be classified as an exciting moment for most, but for Gerberich, cruising 30,000 feet above the earth pales in comparison to what awaits her when she lands.

This week, Gerberich, a senior at Minnechaug Regonal High School, and her baritone saxophone will join the most talented high school jazz musicians in the country in Nashville, Tenn., to perform as part of the National Association for Music Education’s All-National Jazz Band.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, there’s only one baritone saxophone in the All-National Jazz Band.

After earning the highest scores in the district and all-state competitions, Gerberich was invited to compete on the national level against the top baritone saxophone players from each state and once again was the best performer.

“I sent in the recording this past April and I didn’t hear from them until July 17,” she said. “It took a while for me to process that I was going to be going to Nashville and playing with some of the best high school musicians in the country, but once it did, I was completely psyched and excited. I was bouncing off the walls.”

In addition to performing with top-level talent, Gerberich said she is excited to have to opportunity to rehearse with a musical legend.

“We’re going to rehearse under the direction of Rodney Whitaker, who is an internationally renowned bass player,” she said.

Gerberich has played on big stages before. She performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in August with the All-State Jazz Band and at Carnegie Hall in February with the National Honors Performance Series.

“It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. It was amazing getting up to play on that stage,” she said of playing at Carnegie Hall. “The most amazing part was knowing how many other famous musicians had played on that very same stage. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald – all of my favorite musicians have opened up on that stage and it was just incredible to be on the same stage they played on.”

She is also a drum major for the Minnechaug marching band, which is performing a halftime show at the home football game on Oct. 25.

Starting out eight years ago as an alto saxophone player, Gerberich switched to the baritone saxophone as her primary instrument seven years ago at the request of her elementary school music teacher.

“Our elementary school was raising money to buy a baritone saxophone and the year that I was there, they finally got enough money. Our teacher went out and bought this brand new bari sax and she said, ‘OK, well, I need someone to play it now,’” she said. “She came up to me and asked me if I would like to play it and I said, ‘Of course I would.’ I tried it out, I loved it, and it took off from there.”

Gerberich explained that the depth the baritone saxophone brings to the performance of a piece of music is what makes it special.

“The way I view the baritone saxophone in the jazz band is it’s definitely a part of the saxophone section, so I’m very close in working with the other saxophones and do have parts with them, but I feel a bari sax really fills out the band a lot because it has the lower, deeper, rich, yet vibrant sound. It really adds to that bottom part and supports the instruments that are on top,” she said.

The switch worked out beautifully for Gerberich, whose prowess with the instrument grew rapidly, to the point that it was suggested she join the high school band as a seventh-grader.

“She’s been very focused since she showed up on my doorstep as a seventh grader,” Margaret Reidy, high school band director and chair of Minnechaug’s Fine Arts Department, said. “The middle school band director, Andrew Villamaino, knew that Diana wasn’t being particularly challenged in the middle school jazz band and encouraged me to take her into the high school band as a seventh grader.”

While younger than her new colleagues, Gerberich had all of the characteristics of a mature musician and became an integral part of the band, Reidy said.

“The commonality was that she was there because she was a highly skilled musician who could play as well, or better than, any of our high school students, so we were speaking the same language,” she said. “You wouldn’t have an immature student in that situation. The maturity has already shown itself in her skill level, her dedication and her practice. When you can play at a certain level, the other stuff is already there.”

Gerberich, however, is quick to note that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the help of Reidy.

“All the competitions all go through her. Without her I probably wouldn’t have been doing any of it,” Gerberich said. “She’s very supportive and encourages anyone to do it. In that sense of encouraging and providing the opportunities, she’s been a huge part of it.”

Gerberich also credited her private teacher Steve Yarbro with helping prepare her to be able to compete at the highest level.

“He’s been really influential in my abilities and my playing,” she said. “He’s really helped me develop my skills and my technique and helped me become the player I am today.”

While she has always been talented and growing as a musician, Gerberich recently made an exponential leap, Reidy said.

“Making the All-State Jazz Band last year was the real growth spurt,” she said. “She was able to sit in with a band that is that good where she really had to step up and accept that she deserves to be there and can play right along with them.”

Playing with jazz ensembles, to Reidy, illustrates the depth of Gerberich’s talents and her ability to play any style of music.

“Jazz is so much harder. It’s much more spontaneous creation that is difficult for young kids to have skill in,” she said. “You have to practice the pattern so much, but then as the music is happening, you have to choose those patterns spontaneously. It’s such a difficult skill.”

Gerberich is still in the process of applying to college, and therefore isn’t certain of her future plans, but wherever fate takes her, music is coming along for the ride.

“I’m going to continue playing music, though I’m not necessarily going to major in it,” she said.

With all the excitement, there is one concern Gerberich has with making the trip.

“It’s a three-foot, four inch saxophone and flying with an instrument that size poses some challenges,” she said with a smile.