It was the summer of jazz, improved improvisation and growth for Thomas County Central High School senior Joshua Stephens.
Stephens attended this year’s month-long Georgia Governor’s Honors Program. Jazz bass was his selected area of study, a decision for which Stephens is grateful.
“I’m really glad that I got to go in music,” he said. “Last year I was nominated in science, and I could have been nominated in that again this year. I know I am capable in a classroom setting, so I feel like I was able to challenge myself more and learn more as a music major. There were times when I was very uncomfortable, but I had to push myself to do it, and I grew a lot. I’ve completely opened up.”
At first, Stephens says he felt completely out of his element and that everyone in his major field was a better musician than he. But as time went on, the youth gained his footing and gave himself over to the process.
“I learned from them and my instructor, and I feel like I improved and learned so much,” he said. “Especially with music, they expect you to practice. You’re in your major four hours a day and then have several more hours of practice. I improved a lot from having that pressure.”
Stephens spent most of his days immersed in his “major,” or selected field, including performance – both ensemble and solo – and jazz theory, his favorite aspect.
“It was more intellectual based than performance, so it was mainly learning about how to effectively improvise music and what creates jazz,” Stephens said. “It’s so different from traditional theory, and it’s just crazy to see how it all works together, especially with professional musicians. We listened to their solos and evaluated their technique. It was proof that what we were learning was real.”
Improved improvisation is a skill to which Stephens particularly aspired. It is also at the root of the most valuable lesson he learned during his GHP experience: how to interact with the rest of a performing ensemble.
“It took a minute to learn, but once we got it, it was absolutely incredible how different it was from anything I’d done before,” he said. “In the past, we read music and played what was on the page. Four hours a day, six days a week, we were learning each other’s styles and techniques, taking what is on the page and turning it into real music.”
The progress Stephens made was most evident during his favorite GHP performance when the jazz ensemble provided background music for the art majors’ opening night.
“It wasn’t high pressure and our instructor played with us, so we would randomly change time and key signatures and the style that we were playing in,” he said. “It was off the wall and completely fun. I’ve never had more fun at a gig in my entire life.”
It was at this gig that Stephens performed his favorite musical selection from the program, “Mr. Dodo.”
“Jazz is all about tension,” he said. “You want to try and create as much tension as possible – a call and response. You get further and further out, and then you resolve the tension. That’s what makes the music sound so good. In this piece, we could have adventurous solos, play out of key and listen to each other. It was so crazy to see how we had gone from when we first read the piece to where we were when we played it the last time.”
Stephens also took some conducting (which will aid him this year as TCCHS Best of the Nest Marching Yellow Jacket Band’s drum major), traditional music theory and music technology classes, the latter of which focused on tools to compose music like computer-based score writing and recording tech.
For his minor, Stephens chose Latin and Greek, languages he’s never studied.
“I wanted to push myself,” he said. “At GHP, there are no grades, so you are encouraged to push yourself. If you do fail, it’s still an opportunity to learn. It was really, really cool. It was definitely different than a traditional classroom setting of taking notes on conjugations and such. We would actually converse. The teacher would say something to you. Then you had to figure out what they were saying and formulate a response. We also learned a lot about the culture of classical society. Both languages were part of the same class, but Greek was really fun to learn because the alphabet was so different. It was challenging to learn the order of the letters and what they all meant.”
The hardest part of the entire GHP experience, Stephens said, was the rigor of the performance schedule and learning a multitude of musical selections on time for each gig.
“I think I performed seven times in the span of four weeks, and most were different pieces of music than I had played at a previous performance,” he said. “It was a challenge to get all that learned and also have a minor with foreign language and still maintain a social life. It was still worth it, even though at times it was very difficult. It was 110 percent worth it.”
The youth intends to directly implement the skills he acquired through GHP within his TCCHS Bands’ work, particularly with the school’s jazz band. And he plans to keep playing music after high school and explore new opportunities to perform in college bands and jazz clubs.
Stephens encourages other youth to strive toward being selected for the program.
“Even though the process can be hard at times, and you may feel like you don’t measure up, it will be one of the greatest experiences you can have as a high school student,” he said. “If you are a finalist, you’ll grow a lot and even surprise yourself with how much you can learn and change over four weeks. It’s completely worth it.”