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MOUNT VERNON — When one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers of all time — 9-time Grammy Awards winner Wynton Marsalis — drops by to give some advice on how to play your trumpet with more meaning and verve, it is best to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the best.
Two female trumpet players from Mount Vernon High School, freshman Ella Ackert and junior Jordan Conant, were given just that opportunity Saturday afternoon in the MVHS auditorium — lessons imparted from Marsalis in front of an auditorium full of fellow students, parents, and jazz enthusiasts. Marsalis came to the high school almost immediately following his commencement keynote address to graduates of Kenyon College.
The night before, at Kenyon College, Marsalis had also worked with students, which is a passion of the trumpet great who directs the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
“He did a clinic at Kenyon that was a couple of jazz combos. It was fabulous,” said John Packard, band director at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.
First up to perform in front of Marsalis on the auditorium stage, and receive instantaneous feedback, was Ackert. Ackert is already an competitive award-winning trumpet player; she comes from a musical family and is a third-generation trumpet player in the family.
As he did later with Conant, a major piece of feedback for Ackert was to “keep the air moving,” and use pauses for breath to relax and give more meaning between pauses. He offered that recognizing patterns in a piece of music, its ebbs and flows based on style of play and emphasis, allows the music “to become a story.” He also told her not to worry about making mistakes, as he said he would “embrace” what she was attempting each time she made one.
Marsalis’ humor, and easy manner about him of a jazz musician who has given thousands of lessons to young people, appeared to resonate with both pupils. He complimented both players on how much their play had improved just in the short time he had to work with them — in front of an audience full of people. The audience responded, giving each girl plenty of applause with each successful effort.
Marsalis said Ackert was perfect to teach fundamentals to as she has a yearning to reach her full potential. “First, you have a lot of heart, and I could feel it in what you’re playing,” he told her. He added that trumpet players must be true to their instrument, which has a loud, brash character well-known to announce that “a king is coming.”
Ella’s mother, Laura Ackert, said the opportunity for her daughter to learn from the best directly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I am a music teacher, and I can tell you Wynton has championed musical education his entire career,” she said. “It’s a real blessing to have him visit our community.” She added that she remembers musical classes he designed for students back in the 1990s which Ackert and her students benefited from, called “Marsalis in Music.”
Marsalis told Conant that her intelligence made playing trumpet easy for her in some respects, but offered that being a truly masterful player means going beyond flawless technique. He advised her to sing the lines of her music before playing them to get the full effect of the notes. His advice to her going forward is to put emotion and feeling into her performance.
“It’s hard to do that,” he said, but credited her for an excellent start with improved play in front of an important audience — her peers, their parents, and fellow teachers.