Kids Around the Bay

By Mark MacNamara

Robbie Henderson Channels Mingus (on Bass Trombone)

Robbie HendersonYou don’t think of it, but it can be a stigma to play in a jazz band in high school, to be a young jazz musician. The other day in the central quad at Liberty High School, for example, the jazz band was giving an outdoor performance and kids began to boo and throw things.

Liberty High is 102 years old, out in the Delta, in Brentwood, a town of 52,000, on an alluvial plain where peach orchards have given way to wineries, gated communities, and golf courses. The biggest employer is the school district. Thirty percent of the population is 18 and under. The chances of becoming a violent crime victim are 1 in 429.

“We’re known as band geeks,” Robbie Henderson told us. He’s a 17-year-old senior at Liberty. “It’s a stereotype. People think of American Pie: band people as satanic. We’re always near the bottom of the hierarchy.”

In other hierarchies, Robbie Henderson plays with the San Francisco Jazz All Stars. He was selected for the Contra Costa County High School Honor Band and plays in a select ensemble at his school. He’s in his second year as a member of the Diablo Wind Symphony.

All this began at the age of two when he was drawn to a slide whistle. At 10, he tried out for the trombone. The teacher said he was a natural, at bass trombone no less. The very fact that he could handle the slide was particularly unusual because kids that age usually don’t have arms long enough.

Henderson has always been tall for his age; his father, the fire chief of East Contra Costa County, is 6’4”.

These days Henderson’s world is beginning to unfurl. As his mother puts it, he’s starting to be ‘marketable’. A lot of bands are looking for a bass trombone. He just got back from New York playing with the All Stars in the Mingus Jazz Festival; this coming weekend he's playing in the Nextgenjazz Festival in Monterey.

Still, things don’t always come his way. He wanted to study music at the University of the Pacific, but couldn’t get in. He tried for St. Mary’s but got rejected. Nevertheless, he got into Sonoma State, CSU Monterey, and CSU East Bay. He will be the first in his family to go to college.

No, it hasn’t all been easy; he’s had to struggle. Asked what advice he would give others who have Asperger’s Syndrome, he replied, “I like to say what I’ve been taught: Autism is not a disability it’s an ability. I tell people, the best thing is to find someone who can motivate you and then don’t ever lose sight of who you are as a person. Now some people might interpret that as arrogant and cocky. But don’t worry. Pursue your passion; don’t worry about your fears: Fear is just weakness leaving the body.

Incidentally, Henderson is also a competition skateboarder. That’s his release from endless practice, even from the feeling of ecstasy when he’s in the zone, when he’s lost from reality, when all he knows of the world is a melody and some chords.

But on his board, everything is pushed back. He’s in another mid-air, doing ollies and aerials with his ear buds full of Mingus playing Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.

Mark MacNamara ( is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

Music in the Schools Series: Lick-Wilmerding High School

Lick WilmerdingPeriodically, the Kids Around the Bay column profiles one of the local school music programs, to provide parents with a sense of the resources and philosophy offered, as well as how programs compare. This week we spoke with Marty Stoddard.

The Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco was born at the end of the 19th century from wealth made in the California Gold Rush. Among the school’s more famous founders: James Lick, a wildly successful land speculator, and Jellis Wilmerding, a wealthy merchant, who, among his other associations, was a member of the notorious Second Vigilante Committee of 1856.

There were originally two schools: The California School of Mechanical Arts, or “Lick,” and the Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts. After a series of evolutions, the Lick-Wilmerding High School opened in 1955, still with the founding idea of fostering “educated craftsmen.” And craftswomen one might add; the school is coed. The school’s motto has since morphed into “Head, Heart, Hands.”

Lick has long had a vibrant performing arts department, which includes an instrumental program that for the last 22 years has been under the direction of Marty Stoddard. She is perhaps better known in local classical music circles as the Program director for the John Adams Young Composers program at the Crowden Music Center; conductor of the Oakland Civic orchestra; and a member of the San Francisco Composer’s Chamber Orchestra. Stoddard is herself a composer.

The instrumental music program includes a chamber orchestra, an advanced jazz combo, an intermediate jazz combo, and a “21st-century ensemble” for brass, woodwinds, percussion, and all rhythm section instruments. Courses focus on jazz and electric musical styles. There is no traditional concert band. Four instrumental classes are offered, this year with a total of 63 students.

The school’s Vocal Music Program includes three courses: one each for women’s chorus; men’s chorus and vocal ensemble. The program is aligned with the National Standards for Music Education and this year has about 50 students. The director is William Sauerland, himself a countertenor, whose resume includes an MA from the Royal College of Music; performances with Chanticleer, among many other choruses and choirs; and voice teacher with the Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland.

Lick has abandoned all AP courses, including an AP music theory course. Music theory is now embedded in each of the performing classes. “Our goal,” explains Stoddard, “is to establish musical literacy but not sacrifice the enormous value of playing for courses on theory. The approach is to learn both simultaneously and let students pace themselves. I think what distinguishes us is the degree to which we offer individual attention.”

Besides the two members of the music faculty there is an auxiliary staff of five “coaches” who provide help with string technique, for example, and chamber music ensemble work. Occasionally, Stoddard also brings in fellow composers to work with students.

The school does not recruit music students but the admissions office is sensitive to musical talent or interest. In the words of Stoddard, “You can’t get in solely on musical ability, but it can be a largely noted factor.”

“I would say that overall we’re looking for kids that want to acquire a strong academic background, who want to be involved with the community and be truly conscious citizens, and who have some kind of passion.”

“When I think of our music students, here’s someone that comes to mind. I had a girl a few years ago, a jazz pianist who was not terribly accomplished, but very determined. Eventually, she worked her way up and became one of our TAs (teaching assistants). It’s a position where you help conducting and rehearsing. Her goal was to be an improv jazz pianist and at one point she put together a kind of tool kit with methods one could use to improvise. She went on to NYU, got in a jazz band, and I like to think began a life-long concern with jazz advocacy.

“That's as satisfying to me as someone who makes the jazz circuit, because part of the mission of a school program should always be to encourage a lasting association with the arts. And of course, the skills involved in mastering an instrument are eminently transferable to other disciplines.”

Music students often end up playing in the likes of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra or The Young People’s Symphony Orchestra, or the Peninsula Youth Orchestra. Some also attend the Jazz School in Berkeley.

A “steady stream” of music students go on to such schools as Julliard, Yale, NYU, and Whitman College. Lick graduates include cellist Nathan Chan, violinist Cory Lee, and composer Trevor Doherty.

Full tuition at Lick is $38,000. While no scholarships are available there is “robust” financial aid.

Mark MacNamara ( is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

About Town

Family ConcertApril 6, Saturday, all day at Ardenwood Historic Farm: Tartan Day Scottish Fair. Ach, ye still can’t beat thepipes for an ear-splitting racket that’ll give you a prize headache. Scottish dancing, kilts, activities, the whole magilla. Plus, you can teach the kids what haggis is.

April 6, Saturday, Davies Symphony Hall, 2 p.m.: San Francisco Symphony’s Music for Families Concert. With the San Francisco Symphony back to work, this concert is on as scheduled, although you’d be excused for having forgotten about it. It’s one of the best of this series, however, dealing with one piece, Dvořák’s beloved Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This is a concert about how to listen, but between the stories of Dvorak’s life and the infectious tunes, the kids probably won’t notice that.

Mark MacNamara ( is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

Composer of the Week: Sergei Rachmaninov

Sergei RachmaninovThis week’s birthday boy, Sergei Rachmaninov, was one of the last great performer-composers in the classical tradition. And unlike 19th-century virtuosos, that means we have recordings of his playing which definitely establish him as one of the greatest players of his time, and probably of the entire 20th century.

The music that Rachmaninov wrote for himself to play is notorious for its difficulty: The composer was six feet three inches tall with enormous hands that could stretch over huge lengths of the piano keyboard. Most players after him have had to develop work-around solutions just to play all the notes.

But Rachmaninov wrote a wide variety of music, beyond the piano pieces. In addition to symphonic works, he composed the remarkable All-Night Vigil (Vespers Service) a major choral work, which was recently performed locally by both Cantare Con Vivo and the Pacific Boychoir; songs, and a one-act opera (Alekko) that all deserve more attention than they get. Find out about Rachmaninov’s life, stock up on some fun facts, and listen to the music on SFCV’s biography page.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.

Mark MacNamara ( is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.