I walked into a room full of dominating piano, bass, and drums, and Tierney Sutton, dressed in all black, supported by black cowboy boots. It was a jazz master class that Charles Ortega had somehow arranged for his music class, and because I sing with the Madrigals that period, I was invited to attend.

Maren Schiffer

Ms. Sutton and pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Kevin Axt, and drummer Ray Brinker of the Tierney Sutton Band talked about what it’s like for them to play together, how they improvise, and how they were sucked into the funnel of jazz. Ms. Sutton demonstrated jazz blips and runs that are essentially basic voice warm-ups but when performed a certain way become elaborate shows of skill. She called up two trumpet players from the class and had them improvise with the band, causing them to glow. The conversation was broad and often sharp.

However, for me, the most rewarding part was simply hearing the band perform in a small, acoustically friendly classroom. As the sound grew to fill every possible space, the atmosphere was elevated with it. You could close your eyes and still be certain that every musician loved what he or she was doing.

It wasn’t a typical high school experience. As a senior, I can attest that assemblies are rare, and when they do come along they come as luxuries. The master class was a luxury on a completely different scale: It was low-key, no one was trying to pitch anything to us, and there were only about 30 students there, versus 200. It was just a mix of musicians of all different levels and instruments talking about jazz (a genre fairly foreign to me), and music in general.

The band probably didn’t realize the impact they left, however big or small it was for each student. We were a quiet group, tentative in asking questions and in volunteering to participate. But that doesn’t mean the students didn’t love it. In response to Mr. Ortega’s comment on everyone’s uncommon shyness, Ms. Sutton exclaimed, “Hey, their eyes are all wide open and they’re all relatively interested. As far as I’m concerned you’re pretty high up there on the high school hierarchy! I’ve been to some schools where students were like dead fish. Dead fish texting.”

It’s probably difficult to remember how important it is for a high school student to witness an accomplished adult doing something they love. We are so often given advice to succeed in the world by being clever; by outsmarting our competition. It’s surely true that success comes with a degree of strategy, but I don’t frequently hear people talk about savvy in the service of passion.

So when I see someone who makes a livable income while doing their favorite thing in the world—that’s admirable. It’s something I hope to manage in the future. Practicality plays a role in everything, and I’m alright with that. Every member of the Tierney Sutton Band, for example, has performed for television shows and commercials, which I’m guessing isn’t a favorite part of the job. Ms. Sutton at one point humored us, “Every time you see the Green Giant commercial come on?” she said, pointing to herself. “Yep.” It’s just nice to be reminded that passion can be at the core of success, and often needs to be.


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