When the eleven boys of Cameron Yassaman’s advanced Mammoth High School band stop talking and start playing, something happens.
The joshing stops, the awkwardness of adolescence is gone. The sounds—silver and bronze, copper and gilt and fine—push the walls of the room back. The air gives way to music.
The music lifts and pulls and pushes and cajoles. The crowded, circular band room grows huge.
The boys are transformed, too.
The music rises, grows bold and rich and deep; Thelonius Monk’s decadent “Around Midnight.”
The roof rises one last time.
The music ends.
The joshing begins again, until Yassaman, “Mr. Y” to the students, grabs the reins.
This time, it’s a different song. They haven’t worked on this one that much and it shows.
“One, two, three, good posture, one two, ready go,” he says. Yassaman—dark, intense, young—is at the end of his long day running between all three of the district’s schools, where he teaches music to everyone from six-year-old beginners to seniors who have been playing an instrument since they were six. He’s one part band instructor, one part fond and exasperated parent, and one part cheerleader.
He stops the band again.
“Jesse, I need you to get out your pencil and write it on your part, “straight eights, straight eights,” he
“I always forget.”
The boys run through a few more songs.
Yassaman stops them again. The music is good, but it lacks something.
“Whatever you do, do it with confidence,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
They go at it again—and again—until he is satisfied.
The big, round room is warming up and the May sunshine is blinding outside when someone opens the door. Up on the white board, Yassaman has a list of IOU’s— $4 from one boy, $6 from another, another that was $5 crossed out and increased to $7. The boys are getting ready for their final performances of the year—a talent show, a stint with Eddy Evans at the Snowcreek Bistro, their spring concert.
They range in age from sixth-grader Evan Podsiad and his clarinet as the youngest to junior Jackson Gregory and his guitar as the oldest. They are all boys, for reasons no one seems to know, and that fact is both something the boys bemoan—and find comforting.
Yassaman comes to Mammoth High fresh from a music degree and teaching credential from Fresno State. Growing up in Santa Clarita, his life was transformed by a band director who pushed him and his peers to greatness and he has a dream to do the same in other’s lives. More than that, he has a dream for Mammoth Unified School District—that one day, Mammoth will once again have not only a band, but a have a marching band—a band that can play at every football game and every homecoming, a band that everyone in the school can be proud of.
He has a tough job ahead, though, and he knows it. The high school is going through its second straight year of rapid changes in staff, with five longtime teachers leaving at the end of the year, several of them not to be replaced due to budget cuts. The school has also had three principals in the last five years and it has not had a successful football team for longer than that.
Although the school achieved a coveted “California Distinguished School” award last year, it’s no secret the challenges to the high school are currently profound and deep.
It’s a school in transition but here in Yassaman’s room—there’s sanctuary.
“I am an artist and musician,” said Gregory, who said he plays the guitar because “it spoke to me” (and, not least, because “of the girls”). “I’m completely into my art. This is safe place for all of us. This can be a very judgmental place, this school. To be honest, we bring a lot of problems, and here, we can just come in and jam because Mr. Y lets us and we leave them behind and just play.”
“It makes me feel good when I play,” said eighth-grader Perry Moyer, who plays the alto saxophone. “Music is just really interesting to me.”
“It’s what I look forward to every day,” said freshman Jesse Worden, who plays the drums. “It’s always something different, always something you hear that you never noticed before. It’s amazing.”
Yassaman knows this band is good. He also knows it can be even better. He’s hoping to build on what is going on in this room every afternoon and take it further and he’s got a shiny new set of marching band instruments holed up in a big closet in the band room to aspire toward.
The instruments represent the community’s investment in his vision—$11,000 worth of investment—and now he needs to find the students to play them.
For that, he has some high-level support.
“Cameron Yassaman is a very dedicated music director who lives for using music to develop fine musicians and overall successful students,” said Annie Rinaldi, the principal of Mammoth Middle School. “He finds great joy with his students’ breakthroughs when it comes to performing for the community, like Band at the Bistro events, pep rallies, school concerts or performing at sporting events. Cameron has shared with Gabe Solorio and me his plans to continue to grow the music program. He wants to continue to build school pride with the high school and middle school bands. He wants to grow a legitimate music program where students have the opportunity to eventually receive college scholarships for music.”
It’s a tall order but Yassaman said he has the desire and ability to do it.
“I do push them hard,” he said, several boys nodding in rueful agreement. “I try to teach pride in their work, not just to have fun, although that is very important. But it’s when they go out there and the people are cheering and begging them to come back and play again—that’s what makes it all worthwhile and that’s when they see why they worked so hard.
“It’s not just about music, it’s about life.”