Under the tutelage of Virgin Islands native, Grammy Award winning drummer Dion Parson, the Virgin Islands Youth Ensemble is preparing to jazz its way into a third year of providing the territory’s youth with the necessary skills for being professional musicians.
Parson and his team of mentors focus on preparing local young musicians to make the transition between playing in a school band and being professional musicians, or performing in a collegiate ensemble.
“Music is the vehicle we are using to cultivate the young men and women into positive, contributing members of society,” Parson explained. “We teach them to be independent, forward thinkers, and supportive team members. Not every student will be a musician, but everyone needs confidence to succeed in their pursuits. It’s all about giving them life lessons.”
This year, 16 students practiced every other week at the University of the Virgin Islands Music Facility on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. And when rehearsals aren’t scheduled they sometimes schedule practice sessions on their own, without the assistance of their mentors. Parson supports them doing so to build their own musical identity.
“I encourage them to be individuals,” said Parson. “I give them music and they practice it and come up with their own arrangements. I only step in when I feel they need direction.”
Aside from assisting the students in learning new songs, Parson teaches them music theory, improvisation and concert programming. He also instructs them on how to work together as a group, since he wants the students to be problem solvers.
“I never tell them what to do in their concerts,” said Parson. “I give them direction when I feel it’s necessary, but I mostly encourage them to learn on their own through experience.”
“Teaching them these skills allows them to run their own group,” Parson continued.
The ensemble started three years ago and the original group of students is still performing together. The newer students are in a separate group that focuses more on honing their performance skills, so they perform less than the more seasoned players.
To draw local talent, Parson works closely with band instructors from the territory’s high schools to audition promising students. Musicians that impress and play with ease during the audition are placed into the performing ensemble, while those who need more practice join the secondary ensemble.
Continued membership in the ensemble is conditional on the student’s participation in his or her school’s band. The aim is for ensemble members to have as much practice and experience as possible, while encouraging them to share their knowledge with their peers not only in the ensemble but also in the classroom.
Parson hopes these interactions will break down social barriers and bring the young musicians closer together despite which island they are from, the instrument they play, or their level of experience.
Keyshawn Hardy, a 16-year-old trumpet player from St. Croix, is the current leader of the ensemble. This year he’ll enter 11th grade at the St. Croix Educational Complex, making him the youngest member in the performing ensemble.
Hardy is the recipient of the Jerry Silverberg Trumpet Award, which gives awardees the privilege of playing the trumpet of Silverberg himself, donated by the Prior Family Foundation. This annual award also includes a $2,500 scholarship that pays for musical studies at any summer camp of the student’s choice. Hardy selected the University of the Virgin Islands Summer Band camp led by Austin Venzen, a retired UVI music professor.
On July 19, the ensemble, along with a few local guests, delighted spectators and inspired some to move along to the groove during a surprise performance at the Jazz on the Dock concert sponsored by the West Indian Company Limited.
The preparation, camaraderie, and individualistic expression of the group was evident throughout the set. Hardy led his fellow musicians with the confidence of a seasoned professional. The audience enthusiastically cheered for an encore and the band gladly provided them with another smooth tune.
One of the main acts of Jazz on the Dock, Tabari Lake, is an alumni of the original ensemble, giving evidence that the program teaches students the skills necessary to become professionals in their musical crafts.
In October, the group will be the featured ensemble for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Performing Arts Annual Trustee Gala in Washington D.C. The center’s board first saw the ensemble play when it met in the Virgin Islands earlier this year.
“We have a good momentum already this year,” Parson commented.
Following auditions in September, the 2016-2017 ensemble will participate in biweekly concerts at Old Stone Farmhouse restaurant on St. Thomas from October to June.
The ensemble has performed at Old Stone Farmhouse every other week since October, when the Prior Foundation, whose founders own the restaurant, donated free use of the courtyard twice a month. The foundation also helped purchase the sound system the ensemble uses in the courtyard.
In the first year of its existence, the ensemble focused on learning to perform professionally and working as a team. Thus, they had only one performance at Jazz on the Dock. During their second year, the ensemble increased to several performances, including at Jazz on the Dock, Pistarckle Theater and Antilles School. Parson has much more in store for the ensemble going into its third year.
The ensemble’s goals include providing members with private lessons through the United Jazz Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence program, which starts in October. Parson is also hoping to create a partnership with the ensemble at the St. John School of Arts, as well as possibly form third group within the ensemble to support a larger number of students.
The ensemble is sponsored by the Department of Education and works closely with Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum. The only cost students incur by being part of the ensemble is paying for lunch on practice days. The DOE, along with the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands and the Prior Foundation, provides students with all necessary supplies, including airfare and lodging for students from St. Croix to attend practice and performances on St. Thomas. All musical selections and concert bookings are managed by Parson and his wife, Nicole Parson, CEO of the United Jazz Foundation.
High school students interested in joining the ensemble should contact their band instructor to schedule an audition. Home-schooled students can contact the United Jazz Foundation directly by emailing [email protected] or calling 212-222-4070. Auditions for the 2016-2017 ensemble will be held on Sept. 23 in St. Thomas and Sept. 24 on St. Croix. Time and place are to be announced.