Professional musician Jeff Coffin teaches, inspires NHS jazz students
Jeff Coffin shares the stage with the Dave Matthews Band and has lent his talents with a saxophone to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
He has three Grammy awards to show for it.
But last week, Coffin and his group, the Mu’tet, put on a clinic for Noblesville and Fishers high school band students.FHS Band Director Charlie Kunz was a classmate with Coffin at then North Texas State, now University of North Texas. So, when Coffin and the band come through the area, they know who to call. Coffin played at Fishers about five or six years ago.
“People all over the world know these guys,” Kunz said. “They have so much experience and they have so much knowledge, for the kids to be able to hear that is great because there’s stuff I can’t explain to them until they hear it.”
The band jammed for the student and teacher audience, playing a few tunes like “Albert’s Blues” and later jumping into one of their own tunes, “Low Spark,” a jam that has a level of Arabic influence and an active accordion part. Coffin wailed on the saxophone, his face changing hue as his fingers keyed one solo after another.
NHS Jazz Band Director Bethany Robinson described the experience as “invaluable” for her students.
“His work is incredible. Everyone was wowed and amazed,” she said of the live performance. “The kids were just floored.”
Following the mini concert, Coffin and his fellow musicians talked with students about their craft, the importance of listening, and the work it takes to become great.
“Having someone saying the things you are saying in class gives it that push you need every once in a while,” Robinson said.
Seemingly comfortable in his blue jeans, Coffin described when he first learned he wanted to become a professional musician and said it felt like he was coming out of his skin – a feeling he sometimes still experiences.
“To see him play, talk about how he became this good, the people he listens to, you just can’t match that. Providing them with an experience like this is huge,” Robinson said. “He told them ‘Hey, I was in your shoes, and here’s what I did to get here.’ It will inspire them. This will be the day some of them will catch fire because they saw Jeff Coffin.”
Robinson said the coolest part of the clinic was hearing Coffin play “Blues in the Key of G.”
“Every one of the students knows that, and everyone has played it. It lets them think, ‘yeah, we can do this.’ They could see what they can achieve if they keep working,” she said.
Noblesville Schools will host its inaugural Jazz Café at 7 p.m. May 10 at the high school. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students. The performance will include all five jazz bands within Noblesville Schools: each of the middle school bands, the freshman band and the two jazz bands from the main campus.
NHS sophomore Levi Reece said he was ecstatic to have the opportunity to talk to a three-time Grammy winner.
“It’s my first time to actually hear up close an actual professional. He’s one of the best. It’s a really big deal to learn from somebody like him. It’s a great opportunity for all of us, not just the saxophonists,” he said. “Some of the things he can do with a saxophone, I didn’t know you could do. I was blown away. He showed me there was no limit to what the sax can do.”
“It’s really cool to hear he can jump and change styles really well. When you hear him with the Dave Matthews Band it’s completely different,” he said.
As an alto sax player, Reece learned about improv solos for Coffin’s performance.
“The way he moves between keys is smooth,” he said. “He never runs out of ideas.”
The highlight for students was hearing Coffin and his band talk about improvisation and performing examples.
“My solos all sound the same, this gave me some ideas,” NHS sophomore Wyatt Searcy said, adding that improv was a dialogue between musicians.
“I need to mix it up, try new things even if I fail,” NHS sophomore Alec Harrell said. “I should not just stick to notes, but listen a lot and don’t be afraid to do that.”
A teacher at heart, Coffin said his goal was to teach the students something new and make them think about the music.
“I think that because I’m in a band that’s well known, it gives me a particular kind of credibility to the students, but really it’s irrelevant in my opinion,” he said. “There are many people that don’t have that notoriety or that visibility that are every bit as qualified to give this information. But because someone comes in that they know who it is, it’s sort of like wow it’s an alien. And you get to come in; you get to be an alien.”
Current in Fishers Managing Editor Dan Domsic contributed to this story.