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Hornedo Middle jazz band wows crowds, will perform at state conference

(HORNEDO MIDDLE SCHOOL – Jan. 24, 2023) ­– The smooth sounds of George Gershwin fill the classroom of jazz band director Elijah Ontiveros. His middle-school musicians – without skipping a beat – perform difficult pieces flawlessly at a level beyond their years.

Their jazz music chops are being rewarded next month at the Texas Music Educator Association’s Conference in San Antonio where they will be the only middle school jazz band selected from hundreds of entries to perform. They are the only middle school band in El Paso to play at the state conference since 1984 when Morehead Middle’s honor band earned a trip.

"The Hornedo Jazz Band is truly the ‘gold standard’ of jazz bands,” said Phillip Barraza, El Paso ISD fine arts director. “To be the only middle school jazz band in the state of Texas selected to perform at TMEA shows the students are performing at an advanced high school level and well on their way to the caliber of professional musicians.”

The process started last year when Ontiveros and his students submitted their recording for consideration for the TMEA conference, which is scheduled to take place Feb. 8-11.  His original goal was to teach his students jazz fundamentals and refine them so they would sound more like a high school band.

“My goal is never to win anything or selected for anything,” said Ontiveros, a third-year teacher and Andress High School alum. “I just wanted them to sound good.”

Since the selection, Ontiveros and the students have dedicated themselves to rehearsals before and after school, and even spent their intersessions practicing.

“The students are motivated, hard-working and characters all on their own,” Ontiveros said. “They come in every day with a passion to get better every opportunity they get, while having fun making music with each other. They are a joy to work with every day.”

Ontiveros’ students are equally jazzed to play for the 2,500 music educators at the convention.

“I’m so proud because we put in so much work – every day, every day – to get to this point,” said eighth-grade drummer Taylor Martin-Collins. “I hope we play good – no mistakes. We’re getting there.”

She credits the band’s good vibe and the hours of practice honing their skills. 

“It’s been a lot of work,” she said. “But everyone’s friends and we have good chemistry. The good environment leads us to awesome playing.”

Like Martin-Collins, eighth grader Luka Brooker finds the practice schedules drilled into him as a young band member made him ready for their current time commitment. The George Gershwin and Gordon Goodwin selections Ontiveros chose also keep Brooker feeling the music.

“I like that the music is hard and not boring to listen to,” he said. “It’s really cool that we get to play at TMEA. We really tried so hard last year.”

Hornedo also will be taking eight alumni who were part of the original musicians performing on the audition tape as eighth graders. Now freshman at Burges, Coronado and Franklin high schools, the students rehearse after school with Ontiveros to prepare to go on stage as the Hornedo Alumni Band.

“The process leading up to TMEA has been so much fun and I cannot wait to have the best time with all of my friends at this convention and to play the best and the jazziest that I have ever played before,” said Franklin freshman Anna Grace Hunter, a tenor saxophonist. “Most middle school bands – especially jazz bands – are often expected to not be very good, but I am confident that the group that we are taking this year is going to sound amazing and is going to pleasantly surprise a lot of people.”

The Hornedo performances will include guest artists Ricky Malichi, a professional drummer, and El Paso ISD legend Al Mendez, a former director of fine arts who is currently mentoring Ontiveros and his students.

“I’m honored to play a solo with them at TMEA,” said Mendez, who joined Hornedo as a high-impact tutor last school year. “They are incredible. A lot of them play like sophomores and juniors in high schools. They are going to raise some eyebrows at TMEA.”

Mendez praises Ontiveros for his high standards and knowledge, calling him a seasoned teacher despite being relatively new to the profession.

“I rehearse with the students and do sectionals but he’s the one driving the ship,” Mendez said. “I’m glad to be part of it. Our district is going to shine when these kids expose to the rest of Texas their caliber of music. We’ve got a jewel here in El Paso.”