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Music in the Schools Series: Palo Alto High School

April 18, 2013

Palo Alto High School, which opened in 1898, is right across the street from Stanford University; in fact, right across the street from Stanford in every sense. “Paly” is known for its intensely competitive academic schedule and is regularly rated among the top 30 public high schools in the state. The school has around 2,000 students, and both faculty and students say the feel is often like that of a small college.

To be admitted to the school you must live in a certain district of Palo Alto.

The school’s Arts programs have a long tradition and are widely recognized in various circles. The music programs have been particularly noteworthy.

Paly ChoirThe instrumental program begins with a 9th grade band class. A junior high band experience is generally required for admission, but there are exceptions. The fare is light pop, show tunes and some jazz arrangements. This “concert band” performs four times a year. At the next level there’s a symphonic band, an advanced wind and percussion group that draws musicians from 10th through 12th grade. It also offers four concerts a year, and with the concert band performs as a pep band at football games.

In addition, there’s the orchestra, an all-string ensemble that plays a range of classical and new music — from Bach to Britten, and beyond. Occasionally, the symphonic band and the orchestra are joined together for a full orchestra. There are four performances a year.

There’s also a jazz program, which includes a jazz band and jazz ensemble. The band is by audition only and plays a wide variety of contemporary music, including swing, Latin jazz, funk and ballads. The ensemble offers a less intense experience.

And there’s the vocal program, which has an 80-year tradition and a reputation for producing high quality events each year. The Paly choirs are lead by Monica Covitt and Michael Najar. Choirs include a Concert Choir, Madrigal Singers, Spectrum Singers, a Beginning Choir and the Viking Men’s Chorus. Choir members have performed at various state festivals and in a number of honor choirs.

“The difference here,” says Najar, “is that we can expect a level of musicianship among freshman that most public high schools can only dream of. That’s thanks to the Palo Alto Unified School District and a community that really support the arts. We are the beneficiaries of feeder schools that haven’t suffered cuts in music education.”

Najar, who has a music degree from UC Irvine and an MA in vocal performance from Notre Dame De Namur University in Belmont, notes that even with reliable feeder school it’s still a struggle to maintain a high quality music program

“If we didn’t have kids coming out of middle school choirs, I would have to recruit to save my job. I feel sad for my colleagues that don’t have this. But even so we do a lot of outreach. We go out to the middle schools and show the teachers what we offer and what students can expect.

“What we offer is really a highly refined boutique program. We can do very fine, small specific things. And we’re very energetic. We went to sing at the Vatican last year; we’re going to Spain next year. The New York Polyphone (an all-male quarter)just paid a visit. Deeke Sharon came and did a workshop.

Sharon is a well known singer, arranger, and composer, and in the view of some, the “father of contemporary a capella.”

“This is an environment,” says Najar, “where you have teach every student. You can’t weed out people. But by the same token the bar is set very high. You have to bring your 'A-Game' to every class because many of these kids are very sophisticated. And often their parents are musicians. Or they, themselves have played in ensembles. And so we have to be flexible as well and be able to offer talented people opportunities. I had a student who I arranged to work with guest conductors and to go on international tours.”

“And so we’ve built up this incredible faculty, which is distinguished by the fact that they’re not just teachers but program builders. Many similar kinds of schools live or die on the flair or charisma of one particular teacher. It’s what you might think of as Robin William syndrome. But our focus has been on the institution and making all the teachers strong so if any one of us left the program wouldn’t be undermined.”

Paly graduates, which include Joan Baez, have gone on to study music at among other places, Northwestern, The San Francisco Conservatory, Chapman University, Westminster Choir College, Harvard, University of Southern California, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Santa Barbara.

Upcoming events include the Spring Concert on Sunday, April 28 at 4 p.m. The Chamber Concert and Award Ceremony on Thursday, May 16 at 7:30. Click here for more information.

Listen to an audio file of Paly Musicians: Wrestle From Golden State Competition

This is a "simple" early work by Elliot Carter. He stopped composing for choir after 1947 when his musical language became even more sophisticated. I have known it for years but had never sung or conducted it. I don't think it is done by many collegiate groups but I knew we had the horses to do it justice. It poses challenges as singer and conductor but is also incredibly gratifying when it starts to piece together.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is