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Bucking the band trend at Southwest

December 17, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

Since Southwest High School opened its doors seven years ago, finding a band director hasn't been a problem.

Finding one who stays, however, has been.

Whether it was the school's decision not to renew a contract, an out-of-state move or a new job with a shorter commute, the Southwest band hasn't had the best of luck when it comes to establishing a director's tenure.

Ernie De La Vega is hoping to buck the trend.

"If you look at this room, there's not a whole lot of history," De La Vega, the school's fifth band director, said while gesturing to the band room at the El Centro school.

Amid trophies and awards, framed photographs of the entire uniformed band are lined up chronologically on one wall. The band director, if pictured, is rarely the same face twice.

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"Somehow I feel lucky to be in this setting, yet I feel challenged to start a program," the 29-year-old said after a recent band practice session.

He describes his 58-member band as "a good group of students." While he concedes the numbers are on the low side, he said it's a decent amount of members. "I feel, though, that this is a good size to get started with."

Getting started hasn't been without its challenges.

When he arrived, he found the band's drums in poor condition and the music library "limited," De La Vega said. He wants to start a jazz band next semester but lacks the equipment.

"I'm looking for funding anywhere I can," he said.

Additionally, this is De La Vega's first year teaching.

"It can be a challenge," he admits. "Being a first-year teacher I didn't know what to expect. They can only tell you so much."

"I like challenges. That's probably why I took this job," he said with a smile.

De La Vega credits a network of support in helping him make the transition to teaching. The Central Union High School District, Southwest administrators, band boosters and his family have been incredibly supportive, De La Vega said.

Southwest Principal Joe Evangelist said De La Vega has "done an excellent job this year."

"We're lucky to have him," Evangelist said, adding De La Vega has been well-received by both the kids and their parents.

De La Vega grew up in El Centro where he lives with his wife, Monika.

He describes himself when younger as a "typical teen" who wanted to listen to top 40 music on his headphones rather than make it himself.

"To be honest, I didn't want to play music," he said.

As a freshman at Central Union High School his father convinced him to take a guitar class and promised that if he didn't like it after one semester, he'd never have to take a music class again.

By the end of the class, "I'd caught the bug," De La Vega said.

"It was really fun and easy for me to pick up," he said.

As a result, he joined the Spartan jazz band the second semester. He caught the attention of instructor Jimmie Cannon, who invited De La Vega, still a freshman, to be a founding member of Valley Jazz, a group he still plays bass guitar with today.

"It was an honor then and now," De La Vega said of playing with Cannon.

"He was an outstanding student," Cannon said.

"I'm very proud of Ernie. I recommended him for the job," Cannon said.

Being a good music teacher takes "a combination of musicianship, desire and calling to teaching," Cannon explained.

De La Vega is finishing his degree in musical education at San Diego State University and said he had an idea when younger that he would one day teach music.

"I saw how rewarding it can be and thought it was something I wanted to do," he said.

Music is a form of expression and emotional release for De La Vega.

"It's more than just sound to me. It's an experience," he said.

Teaching his students is enhancing that experience.

He counts seeing the enjoyment on the kids' faces and watching them grow and improve as some of his favorite parts of the job.

Especially meaningful is when "they come up and thank me."

"I've already had that happen," De La Vega said.

>>Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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