Luck is not chance, it’s toil. Fortune’s expensive smile is earned. ~ Emily Dickinson

Mr. Ahrens teaches band & choir at Bear River High School in Grass Valley, CA.


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California All-State Music Conference

A Quick Journal of this Weekend’s Events

I had planned on leaving school at 11:30 this morning and preparing to drive to Fresno this afternoon. (Our modified block schedule gives me an early day every Thursday). That was until the current storm system brought a nice covering of snow to northern Nevada County and a change of plans… Snow Day!!

My wife Susie (@TubaChic) and I will be attending the conference together this year, something we’ve never been able to do. We’re really excited to have these four days together – even if its in Fresno! As a friend noted, Fresno will seem like Maui since we’re leaving the four kids back home! We won’t be together the whole time, though. In an effort to get in as many of the sessions as possible, we’ll be splitting up and then comparing notes later.

This blog  post will be a running journal for this weekend.

Are you going to be there?

If you’re going to be at the conference, we’d love to meet and say “Hello”. While I’m getting to know a lot of music educators through the Music PLN and Twitter, it seems there are not that many members of these groups in California. So if you’re going or are at the conference, send me a message on Twitter (@MrAhrens) or comment on this post and let’s get together.

If you’re tweeting, the official hashtag for this weekend is #CalAllState11

The Trip

The beautiful drive through the rich farmland of California’s San Joaquin Valley between Sacramento and Fresno takes 3 hours to accomplish, according to Google Maps. However, today it was raining heavily the entire time and the two southbound lanes of CA Hwy 99 were bumper-to-bumper from Stockton to Merced (about 70 miles). The beginning of that segment of the journey began memorably with a sea of red tail lights putting a sudden harshness to the muted gray tones of rain. Then the semi truck to our right began to fishtail – in and out of our car’s personal space. We saw the trailer of the semi truck behind us pulling to the left as the cab got ever closer to our back bumper. Thankfully, that’s the end of the exciting story. We’re now at our hotel in Fresno. The conference begins in the morning. Susie and I are headed out to find somewhere to eat. Any recommendations?

Conference: Day 1

Today was a very good day. Susie and I were up early and to the Fresno Convention Center just as registration began. It’s still raining today, but it has been light and sporadic.

The first session I attended was on Chamber Music in the Classroom presented by a brass quintet from the US Air Force Ceremonial Band. These guys could really play! It was particularly impressive to know that they are not a regular quintet, but just put themselves together in the past week for this conference. The info on the importance of chamber music was good, but a little generic. I’m mostly glad I was in attendance to hear them play. While I was here, Susie attended Dr. Shila C. Woodward’s The Holistic Music Experience of the Young Child.

I attended a session on Using SmartMusic given by band director Eric Marbrey next. [It was here that I bumped into my friend and fellow CSUN horn section alum Barbara Priest. She was the site host for the session. We had spent a lot of time together playing in the same section in both the Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble (12 hours a week for four years). It was really nice to get to talk old times.] I’ve been using SmartMusic for a little while now, but have not come close to utilizing it fully. This was a useful session in seeing a step-by-step method for daily use in an ensemble. For the second session, Susie attended Rhyme in Time & Fingerplays as Pathways to Number Sense and Pattern Awareness with Dr. Woodward and Dr. Darlene Kretchmer.

After lunch, we both went to All Ears: Improvisation Aural Training, and the Creative Process by Fred Sturm. Fred is also the director for the All-State Jazz Band this year. This was an excellent session on teaching improvisation by ear – specifically aimed at ensembles with less experience.

For the final session of the day, I sat in a great lecture by composer and director of Jazz Studies at California State University Long Beach Jeff Jarvis entitled Big Band Re-Arranging 101. Jeff had some excellent do’s and don’ts from both the composer’s and adjudicator’s perspectives. This was a very engaging hour looking at ways a director can ethically modify a jazz chart to suit his band.  Since I’m in a rural area and have a relatively small program, I often need to modify parts, instrumentation, or other things to facilitate the needs of my group. It was nice to get a composer’s perspective on the topic including encouragement to change certain things (instrumentation, range, etc.) and not others (form, etc.). My band has a couple of his charts in our book. It was cool to get a bit of his thought process. Susie attended Current Trends in Marching Band presented by Key Poulan, Tony Crapo, Mark Stone, and Jonathan Grantham.

Awards Banquet

David Ahrens, Dr. David Whitwell, Barbara Priest

I was honored to sit at a table for the CMEA awards banquet with my former CSUN Wind Ensemble director Dr. David Whitwell, as well as with Mrs. Whitwell, Barbara, and Susie. I had not seen or spoken to Dr. Whitwell in about 16 years. He was extremely influential in my musical development. This evening he was there to accept the CMEA Hall of Fame Award.

All-State Jazz Choir Concert

A superb performance by the 16 students of the California All-State Jazz Choir. It is quite remarkable that 4 of these 16 are from our small high school in the Sierra foothills. They did a remarkable job under the direction of the legendary Darmon Meador (of New York Voices).

Susie and I skipped the later concert to meet back up with Barbara Priest and Dr. Whitwell to talk about the state of music education and do plenty of reminiscing about our days at Northridge. I really enjoyed the entire day and this was a wonderful way to end it.

Conference: Day 2

The second day began with me attending the Vocal Jazz clinic given by Darmon Meador and Susie playing tuba with the orchestra director reading group. It was good that she went, because there were no string basses. Mr. Meador featured the members of the All State Jazz Choir to demonstrate his methods. It was a great opportunity for our students to not only perform on stage at the conference, but to sing in a more intimate setting for about 50 music teachers. Even though I do not teach choral music, I felt this was a valuable lesson and picked up some things I will begin incorporating into my ensemble.

Buena Band reunion.

I had a little time in between sessions so I found the nearest wifi hotspot that thankfully had a strong caffeine supply. Being around a lot of people tires me quickly and I need alone time to recharge. I did a little writing and a little reading while sipping on my dry cappuccino.For the second session, I joined the most packed room that I saw all weekend.  This was for woodwind great Eddie Daniels. He was the headliner for the previous night’s concert.  His session was very entertaining. Eddie’s a funny guy… and he’s got chops. The main point that I took from him was that what drives us to greatness are the often opposing personal traits of passion and discipline.

I had made plans to meet up with high school band friend and current Fresno area music supervisor Jennifer Determan-Lewis for lunch.  It was great to catch up at a fairly good and extremely packed nearby Armenian restaurant. A number of kids from my high school band have gone on to teach music. I was not aware of most of them until recently as they reemerged in my life due to the power of social networking. I find it interesting how the momentous shared experience of high school (and particularly high school band) creates a very unique bond. There are a good number of high school friends now on Facebook that I maybe knew for a year or two twenty years ago and yet in many ways, I feel closer to many of them than others that I’ve known much longer. I think the crucible of the teenage years and the shared experiences during that time of first quasi-independence have a great impact on us. This is why we have high school reunions…

Conference: Day 3 – The Concerts

Performances by the CBDA All-State Concert Band, CBDA All-State Symphonic Band, CODA All-State Orchestra, and CBDA All-State Wind Ensemble finished off the conference. I was delighted to hear truly exceptional performances under the direction of Dr. Lawrence Stoffel, Dr. Mitchell Fennell, Jung-Ho Pak, and Jerry Junkin respectively.


As is often the case, I was not able to attend every session or every concert. It would be great if someone in the leadership of the conference had thought to record each session and concert and podcast them as a resource for those who couldn’t attend (in and out of California!).  Perhaps next year.