A bus pulled up to a curb in Downey on November 17 and out filed San Marcos High School’s marching band and color guard, starchily clad in red-white-and-blue uniforms. It was their last competition of the season, and they tasted sweet success — the group qualified for the state championships by placing among the top 12 team in their division. Naturally, a celebration was in order. Students traded their instruments for floaties and threw a well-deserved pool bash.
The leader of these impressive teens is San Marcos music director Michael Kiyoi. In addition to marching band and color guard, he also teaches jazz band, wind ensemble, indoor percussion ensemble, winter guard, and the pit orchestra. It’s a dizzying juggle, but Kiyoi clearly loves his job.
A Santa Barbara native, Kiyoi attended San Marcos. Deciding to pursue a career as a high school music teacher upon graduation, he went to UCLA, where he earned a bachelor of arts in music. Armed with his degree, Kiyoi looked for work in Los Angeles, but there were no positions available, so he returned to his hometown. Kiyoi first trained young musicians at Montecito Union Elementary School and Peabody Charter School before finally settling in at his former high school, where he has helmed the instrumental department for the last nine years.
Kiyoi conducts weekly three-hour rehearsals for each ensemble, during which his devoted students practice songs in their entirety as well as work on the finer points of a score. “Every day is unique,” Kiyoi said. “I try to instill in my students that we can improve something, even if it’s small.” Admiring students often knock on Kiyoi’s door during office hours for advice on music and life.
Deep, familial bonds are cultivated among the students, which isn’t surprising considering the amount of time they spend together, Kiyoi noted. For example, summer camp rehearsals span from 9 a.m to 9 p.m., but these teens know how to buckle down. In fact, many say that summer camp is their favorite experience, fueling their motivation, work ethic, and fraternity. More often than not, an older student will mentor a younger student, with that student becoming a mentor themselves later on.
Communication, dedication, and understanding is Kiyoi’s mantra. With hard work, intermediate bands with rough starts have turned tremendous corners. The 2012 marching band was one such group. Despite starting as the underdogs and the smallest band in the competition, they won the Southern California School Band & Orchestra Association (SCSBOA) championship.
Choosing songs is tricky, said Kiyoi. It’s a careful balancing act, but he masters it with aplomb — weighing students’ skill levels while selecting enjoyable yet challenging music. “I take it one year at a time,” Kiyoi said pragmatically. It’s a method that has worked well; the San Marcos music program grows stronger each year — and their trophy collection keeps expanding. Envisioning the future, Kiyoi hopes to take ensembles to more out-of-state competitions. Ideas are still cooking in his head, but a possible jazz festival is in the works, with more to come.
Santa Barbara is renowned for its thriving art community, and Kiyoi champions music and performing arts in the Santa Barbara Unified School District. “Not every student is meant to be a scientist or engineer,” he stressed. He’s seen the joy and cohesion that music brings firsthand with his students. Indeed, it’s an uphill battle to keep music and performing arts alive in education, but all those in the San Marcos High School music program would feverishly agree it’s a cause worth fighting for.