When an improv workshop with Skaneateles Middle School's jazz ensemble and Brooklyn band The Huntertones began late Friday morning, all of the students' back were straight, their faces stiff.
An hour of jamming and encouragement later, the students' posture thawed and some began moving to the music as they played, like the professionals were doing.
The Huntertones, who have performed internationally, played with the middle school group, the Skaneateles Jazz Lab, in Skaneateles High School's auditorium. The Brooklyn band played with the high school group, the Skaneateles Big Band, later that day, and all three groups hit the stage later that night for a community concert.
After the Jazz Lab played "Work Song" by Nat Adderly, the Huntertones' saxophonist, Dan White, told the students to be undeterred by any mistakes they make, and to improvise.
"Literally everyone who played on stage just now played all the right notes," White said. "Now play the wrong ones, because that's fun."
Huntertones member and sousaphone player Jon Lampley, who plays in the band on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," told students that he will compliment them on stage when he hears them play something in a way he likes. He said he is "constantly yelling at everybody in the band" during performances. Lampley told the students this, he said, to give them an idea of how musicians often operate during show.
The band members compared improvising to having a musical conversation, and they had some with the students. White took to a saxophone to match seventh-grade student PJ Kennedy. Kennedy played along, his eyes focused on White. Kennedy paused for a moment in the middle of their experiment, a smile clearly on his face despite having his lips on the mouthpiece of his saxophone.
Kristen Mulcahy, the band director for the elementary school, complimented Kennedy on how he handled improvising with White.
"It's a scary thing to be vulnerable and stand up and make things up in front of someone like Dan," Mulcahy said.
At the end of the session, some students, like Kennedy and sixth-grade student Tommy Cattalani, were moving their bodies while playing like The Huntertones did. Mulcahy said The Huntertones' payment for their time at the district was covered through a program at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES. The Skaneateles Music Guild, which provides financial backing for the district's musical activities, paid for hospitality and lodging.
Corey Riley, band director for the middle school, said in a phone interview Jan. 31 that the guild tries to bring a musician or group out to the area every year. Riley said he knew three of The Huntertones — White, Lampley and trombone player Chris Ott — while the four were students at Ohio State University. Riley reached out to the group's manager about bringing them to Skaneateles.
"We wanted something that would inspire (the students), and obviously their music is excellent," Riley said of the band.
After the workshop, Kennedy said he enjoyed working with the group and that despite being nervous, he eventually got into the groove of things.
Student Lili Winkelman said she relaxed "after I knew they weren't going to judge us."