MAHOMET — This year's Mahomet-Seymour High School Jazz Band is extra special to band director Michael Stevens.
Sure, the group's won impressive accolades at jazz band competitions, including highest score of the day and first place in Class A at the 60th annual Eastern Illinois Jazz Festival. The band also swept division competition at the 45th annual Indiana State University Jazz Festival last month with "outstanding" soloists.
But what Stevens truly enjoys sharing with his 22 performers is the essence of all that is jazz.
"We try to play stuff by well-known composers and arrangers. We play things the jazz greats played so kids get a true depiction of what jazz is all about," he said. "I encourage them to do a lot of listening. The more you listen, the better you can play the material."
The band was able to show off its efforts with a jazz band dinner performance Saturday at the high school's commons, where senior trombonist Christina Nielsen was able to share all she'd learned since she joined the jazz band in seventh grade.
"Jazz band has made me appreciate music a lot more and just musicians," she said.
Perhaps her biggest challenge with jazz band was that it wasn't something that came easily to her. But that didn't keep her from sticking to it and buying into what Stevens had been preaching.
"I think it helps me expand my horizons," she said. "Every song is different and has a different meaning to it, and so it just opens my eyes to all of the different things."
"You can feel so many other peoples' feelings without ever having known them," she added. "Most of the musicians we play songs from aren't even around now, and I can still feel what they felt then through jazz."
Nielsen's favorite piece to play was "Vierd Blues," which kept her on her toes with all of those time signature changes.
"It's a lot of listening for the feel," she said.
"I'm a lot better at listening for the feel than reading the time signatures," she said while laughing.
The technical aspects of jazz band are also a favorite of senior tenor saxophonist Kate Dallmier, who has had to improv in numerous solos over the season.
"It's kind of scary to improv at first because there's nothing there to play and you just have to rely on yourself," she said. "People think you can just kind of play whatever, but you do have some structure you have to follow — there's chord changes you have to follow, and you have to know the chords and the notes so that's really tricky."
Some of Stevens' key players include drummer Ryan Bushell, who impressed the competition's judges "pretty much everywhere we played."
"He actually got recruited at one competition. Someone gave him their business card. Indiana State named him the best drum set player of the day," Stevens said. "He's only a sophomore."
Soloists Kate Dallmier and Lydia Magyar also "really stepped it up" as did first-year performer Gaven Williams.
"I was super impressed with how he performed," Stevens said. "He's really improving."
All-stars aside, Stevens' favorite part of jazz band is watching his musicians enjoy performing.
"Just seeing the excitement on the kids' faces as they perform, and then they get that reaction from the crowd — that's what it's all about," he said. "Being a musician is just sharing your talents and when you have a crowd that's very appreciative, they feed on that and I think the kids enjoyed it Saturday night."
And boy did they enjoy it. Senior tenor saxophonist Jacob Norton loves the close-knit community that comes with jazz band, especially when compared to the vibe at marching band.
"It's a little bit better and we get to go to Chick-fil-A," he joked.
Sophomore trumpet player Aidan Trevillian, who is in his first year of jazz band, also enjoys the not-so-serious moments.
"There's been some funny moments like a CD case randomly flying and almost hitting one of our members in the middle of practice," he said. "Someone also sprayed an entire bottle of cologne inside a cowbell."
But jokes aside, Trevillian is glad he gave in to his curiosity and auditioned for the band.
"It's just another way for me to play the trumpet and it helps me express myself," he said.
Norton couldn't agree more. He, too, enjoys each and every day he gets to pal around with this bandmates.
"It's going by so quickly," he said. "It's kind of crazy that it's already senior year and I'm already done with it."
The experience is also one that Dallmier will cherish.
"I'm going to be really thankful for all of the support and all of the people that really care about you — friends, teachers, family," she said. "It's been a really good group of people to just relax with. It's not like a super-high-stress environment. Jazz music is pretty chill and so it's just a good time to come and play some music."
Those takeaways are what make it so special for longtime director Stevens.
"I see the impact music and the social impact music has on the kids," he said. "I'll see them years later and they're still talking about the memories we had, whether it be in rehearsal, a performance or on a trip somewhere. Those are the things that stick with them forever."