“Back in 1972, the electric bass wasn’t considered a valid instrument for a music major.” says Jaime Knight, director of the Commercial Recording Arts Department at Huntington Beach High School, California. It seems almost as unbelievable to students today as saying “They used to deliver milk to the front door!” But this is the way Jaime Knight describes his process in developing the Commercial Music Department at HB High.
Knight, an alumnus of HB, sang in the choir there and played bass in his own rock band. His excitement on becoming a music major was quickly extinquished when he was informed that he did not play a “valid” instrument. Instead CSULB accepted him as a vocal major. “I was an OK vocalist.” he says. Knight eventually dropped out of college to chase after stardom as an electic bass player. It’s that experience that creates a passion in him to reach the 98% of the student population who are not drawn to the traditional avenues of band, orchestra or choir.
Eventually he went back to UCLA, got his degree in Electronic Music and made the practical career decision to get a teaching credential in history. When he finished student teaching at rival Fountain Valley High, the principal didn’t have a history position open but offered to hire him as Library Media Specialist. He immediately sponsored a club called “The Loud Music Club” (hence his nickname “the Loud Librarian”). He rehearsed rock and punk bands after school, and after several Battle of the Bands, was recruited to teach one night class of Songwriting/Recording at arts magnet, Huntington Beach’s APA (Academy of Performing Arts).
The original class contained thirteen students. In one year, the program has grown to the point that Knight now has a full complement of classes, and the program is capped at 180 students. One hundred more students, who must audition to get in, are on the waiting list. The Commercial Arts Department operates alongside traditional marching band, orchestra, drumline, jazz bands and keyboard ensemble under the direction of Gregg Gilboe. In some cases, students participate in both programs.
“I envision my type of program as being an enhancement to the band and choir, definitely not as a replacement.” explains Knight. One of his goals is to explore and develop areas in which the two groups could work together to increase the musicianship of their students and the sound of their performing groups. “I work with a lot of “at risk” kids, as well as the non-traditional music kids, and I encourage them to join normal band and choir.” says Knight. “I really believe in an education that is diverse musically and I think the musical discipline that band provides is good for them.”
Knight says his students range from kids who barely graduate high school and think guitar is their salvation, to AP students on their way to Stanford and USC. Many of them never had any training in the arts at all. “I think music teachers have to be interested in the non-traditional music student and show them that you care about what they like, even though it may be different from your own preference.”
But it’s not all lead guitar solos for the kids in Commercial Arts. The program has survived, and flourished because he put the kids to work. As a result of a series of successful shows, the APA program and a parent volunteer group agreed to contribute $15,000 to start a 10-station computer lab. While the lab is outfitted with midi, digital audio and instruction software, and the kids spend quite a bit of time in the lab, these kids are groomed to perform.
Recently the students presented at CUE: Computer Using Educator Show in Palm Springs, CA. In addition the Orange County Department of Education asked the students to conduct a district seminar on GarageBand. The students also performed live the entire “White Album” to a sold out show at the Huntington Beach Library Theatre.
But their biggest project, three years in a row, is Retrofest, in which students form bands and perform classic rock songs. The show, including lights, costumes and sets that have a distinctively “retro” feel, sells out two shows in the 500 seat auditorium and is, arguably, the largest music production of the year. All of these events help fund the growing and well-equipped, tech-heavy department.
Last year, Knight took his students to perform at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The students performed alongside Knight’s own rock band, sparkle*jets u.k., as part of the International Pop Overthrow Festival. “Playing the Cavern Club was like a pilgrimage.,” exclaims Knight “Teaching my students about the social and musical importance of the Beatles at that time and then watching my kids perform there was amazing.”
I wonder what Sir Paul McCartney would say about electric bass not being a “valid” instrument.