Curtis Gaesser

Recipient of the 2008 Award for Outstanding Contributions to Youth Music Education

Folsom High School Music Director, Curtis Gaesser

Folsom High School Music Director, Curtis Gaesser

Photo by mark coverdale photograph

Curtis Gaesser has spent 20 years making Folsom High School’s music program one of the best in the country and exposing his students to sounds that aren’t found on the average teenager’s iPod.

Gaesser grew up in Hawaii, and it may sound quaint, but his first instrument was the ukulele. He was such a natural, that his sixth-grade teacher asked him to teach the class instead. The following year, he took up the saxophone and shortly thereafter, packed up both instruments and moved to El Dorado Hills, enrolling at Ponderosa High School.

Gaesser earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sacramento State where he studied saxophone performance and practiced four to six hours a day, and where, he said, “Some terrific teachers got hold of me. They made it clear that if you want to rise above everyone else, it required a lot of work and a lot of time. There were no excuses.”

Since landing his first teaching job at Cordova High School in 1984, Gaesser has perpetuated this philosophy. You might think that work ethic would scare off high-school students in an era when text messaging and online gaming pass for extracurricular activities, but Gaesser’s students at Folsom High, where he began teaching in 1987, are as serious about music as he is.

In 2003, Folsom High School was named a Grammy Signature School, meaning its music program was among the nation’s 20 best in terms of quality, fund-raising, curriculum and the level of technology and instruments available to students. This year, Folsom High is a finalist again.

To succeed, Gaesser said he has “always given my students respect first. I have to earn their respect, too. You really have to humble yourself to be an effective leader.”

Of course, it helps that he and his students share the same passion for music and an interest in listening to the same artists. One of their current favorites is the Maria Schneider Orchestra—a New York-based big band that performs contemporary music.

And, thanks to successful fund-raising, Gaesser can commission original work for his musicians to play. “Everybody’s been regurgitating the same music since the 1940s,” he said. “I try to bring new music to the program. We perform pieces nobody else does.”

Under Gaesser’s tutelage, Folsom High School has received 15 DownBeat magazine “Deebee” awards and is a 10-time recipient of the “best high school vocal jazz group” 10 times and “best high school big band” five times.

Yet Gaesser says that winning isn’t everything, and his students agree. In 2006, one of his groups took first prize at the Reno Jazz Festival, besting 400 other groups from around the West Coast. In testament to their humility, the first thing anyone said upon returning to the bus was, “Where are we going to eat?”

That doesn’t mean Gaesser and his students don’t welcome compliments, though. You can hear pride in Gaesser’s voice as he describes one of his fondest memories at Folsom High. The jazz band opened for the Count Basie Orchestra in 2006, and when the professionals took the stage, one of them quipped, “We just had a meeting before we all came out, and we don’t want to follow that.”

Gaesser juggles a crushing workload—he leads the marching band in the fall, an orchestra, a wind ensemble, three jazz bands and two jazz choirs. He’s got three children of his own, each in various stages of musical discovery, and he is the music minister at his church. It doesn’t leave much time, if any, for his own performing. But while Gaesser’s success as an educator has not come without personal or professional sacrifices, it hasn’t lacked for fulfillment.

“I don’t think there is anything more rewarding than to see kids perform at their best after a lot of hard work,” he said. “You can give me a lie detector test—I don’t care if we win or lose, I just want these kids to do their best.”

Gaesser believes that musical participation presents students some of life’s great lessons, too.

“It teaches you how to work in a cooperative setting,” he said. “You might be right alongside someone you don’t care for, but you have to get past that and keep your eyes on the goal.”

Gaesser was named “District Teacher of the Year” for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District in 1990. He was honored as 1995’s “Most Outstanding Music Educator” by the California Association for Music Education and was “California State Jazz Educator of the Year” in 2003. This past year, he received DownBeat magazine’s “Annual Achievement Award in Jazz Education.”

So, although we can’t claim originality in honoring Curtis Gaesser for his outstanding achievements in music education, we can at least say with great confidence that we made the right choice.