Craig Faniani

Recpient of the 2006 Award for Outstanding Contributions to Youth Music Education

As a boy, Craig Faniani had a calling that wasn’t to be denied,

even though he didn’t immediately recognize it. In fourth grade he started playing the trumpet. His teacher at the time, John Gonsalves, began giving him extra parts, and later taught him how to play chords on the piano. But, as a student in high school music was a side project for Faniani. He played in a jazz-rock band but mostly concentrated on his math and science studies. In college, Faniani became an engineering student—though he often found himself waiting for the phone to ring for the next gig with his band. It wasn’t long before he changed his major to music. He remembers his professor Albert McNeil, who suggested he try teaching. “It worked,” reported Faniani.

Faniani teaches music at Rio Americano High School and is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of their current music program. Prior to his arrival, only 40 students participated in one concert band and one jazz ensemble. During his 24-year tenure, that figure has changed remarkably: The school now boasts a total of five concert bands and four jazz ensembles with over 200 students participating.

Under his direction, the Rio Americano AM Jazz Ensemble successfully captured an astonishing seven first-place awards in the High School Big Band category at the reputable Monterey Jazz Festival, as well as one award at the Reno Jazz Festival. In 2001, they were the first California band ever to be invited to the Essentially Ellington Festival in New York City.

With a scorecard like this no one would have guessed that Faniani didn’t realize the importance of music until his college years, despite the fact that he’s played in bands since eighth grade. “Common perception is that you realize your love of music and then pursue it,” he said. “For me it was the opposite.”

After getting his teaching credential from UC Davis, he began student teaching at Kennedy High School under the supervision of Nick Anguilo. “The school had the best music program in the country,” said Faniani. “I was scared as well as astonished when [Anguilo] introduced me to the band and then left me on my own to sink or swim.” The truth was, Anguilo immediately recognized something in him. “I wasn’t about turn over my top jazz ensemble to someone I didn’t have confidence in,” explained Anguilo. “After watching him teach, it was clear to me that he was an outstanding teacher.”

Faniani took his first teaching position at Washington High School in West Sacramento. After the schools consolidated, he spent the next three years performing in the Bay Area before returning to Sacramento. “Thank goodness that didn’t work out,” he laughed. “I hated being on the road.” He hooked up with the San Juan District and taught for a year at Starr King School before starting his current 24-year stint at Rio Americano.

He may have hated being on the road, but Faniani loved to perform. “Sharing music and getting approval from others was always very important.” He believes the key to improvisation is being able to play for others. “One of my students said it best,” he recounted. “After teaching her chords she said, ‘You mean I don’t have to play what’s on the page?’ Music is meant to surprise and evolve; improvising is a thrill for the performer and audience alike.”

When asked about his success at Rio Americano, he described how the “planets have to line up to have a successful band.” The strong musical climate at Rio Americano has allowed the music program to flourish and develop. The support of parents, community, staff and administration make it impossible for the school to be an easy target for budget cuts.

The musical relationships Faniani builds with students also attributes to their success. “Craig’s been a role model for a great number of students, has been a mentor and friend to them,” explained Anguilo. This is largely due to the fact that Faniani understands what music means to young people. “It keeps kids focused,” Faniani mentioned, “but it also makes them strive for something high[er]; it raises self-esteem and confidence, teaches them time management and develops the brain. Music gets you to places inside that nothing else can.”

Josh Murray, one of Faniani’s closest colleagues, agreed. He has been playing music with and working beside Faniani for eight years, and witnesses daily how his interaction with students makes a difference. “As a music teacher, you can’t be successful unless you have the kids’ love or trust,” confirms Murray. “Those kids would run through walls for him.”

Faniani remembers the mentors he had growing up as a young musician and what they meant to him. “My first mentors were those who taught me that music was important,” he recalled. “My grandmother played piano and organ in church, and my dad drove me to gigs and helped me move pianos. My mom and dad supported me always.” He went on to talk about Anguilo and Wayne Reimers, the band teacher at Rio’s feeder middle school. He described a man who nurtured him professionally: one who was cool and collected but meant serious business. “He almost literally held my hand during my first five years,” remembered Faniani. “His students worked hard to earn his respect and love.” Here is where Faniani believes he learned perspective, patience and balance.

Faniani hopes his students are taking more than just music lessons away with them. As a fellow music teacher, Murray agrees. “Kids are going to get what they’re going to get out of the other classes. But the arts make them fully human; they add the beauty in our society, make life livable.”

Faniani teaches his students lessons about teamwork, a commitment to excellence, “thinking off the page,” and a belief in themselves. He wants his students to know “that it’s OK to go after something in a passionate and inspirational way.” His students constantly inspire him. “When students play with musicality and are self-inspired and turned on by their own performance; when they first ‘get it,’ I am moved.”

How does music play a role in the rest of the community? Faniani has the answer: “Music doesn’t see color, race, gender, age. It’s pure and universal, cleansing and honest.” He explains that for him, his identity is wrapped up in music; it’s a vehicle that has brought him fortune in many aspects of his life, but more importantly, “Whenever music and kids get together, great things happen.”

For information about the VIP Event honoring Mr. Faniani, please contact Kelli Guerriero at (916) 498-1234, ext. 1368.