3 Questions

3 Questions with Santa Fe High Orchestra Director Gabe Tafoya

First-time honor shows growing high school orchestra’s redoubled commitment to music

The New Mexico Music Educators Association is slated to host its 80th Annual All State Honors Concert at the University of New Mexico’s Popejoy Hall later this month (3:30 pm, Thursday, Jan. 11. Free; 9 am, Saturday, Jan. 13. $7-$14. Popejoy Hall, 203 Cornell Drive, Albuquerque, (505) 277-8010), at which it celebrates the talents of hand-picked New Mexico music students from across the state.

This year, Santa Fe High School’s 18-member chamber orchestra was named one of five Honor Ensembles and will perform six pieces at the concert, inlcuding works by Franz Shubert, Yukiko Nishimura, Ayla Asherov, Joshua Reznicow and Gustav Holst, plus a mariachi tune by Quirino Mendoza y Cortés arranged by the school’s orchestra director Gabe Tafoya.

Tafoya, who has led the orchestra for nine years, has a background primarily in guitar, piano and violin (which he puts to use when playing with Mariachi Azteca), and describes Santa Fe High’s selection for the concert as “an incredible honor.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity. - (Mo Charnot)

How does it feel for your orchestra to be recognized for their work by a statewide organization?

It’s an incredible honor for public school kids to get to perform at Popejoy Hall, because that’s a legitimate, professional venue that even some professional musicians don’t get the opportunity to play at. I think it’s really exciting that other teachers and students from around the state get to hear what we’re doing. Santa Fe doesn’t always get recognized for having strong music education programs, and I think it’s a great opportunity for us to show what we’re doing.

This is, to my knowledge, the first time any music group from Santa Fe Public Schools has been chosen for [the honors concert] and [it] has been going on for a very long time. It’s kind of crazy too, because I’m still fairly early in my career; this is only my ninth year teaching. The Santa Fe High orchestra program, before I took over, was kind of unstable and had seen a lot of different directors and enrollment was really low. When I took over the program we had about 30 students in the entire program, and now we’re up to about 70.

What improvements within Santa Fe High’s orchestra program are you’re most proud?

The level of musicianship has gone up so much. The music literature is graded: grades 1, 2, 3, 4…Grade 5 is the highest that a high school orchestra is going to go; anything above that is just professional-level repertoire.

When I took over the program, my top group was playing Grade 2 repertoire (primarily for junior high-level students), and now we’re playing around grades 4.5 and 5. We’re finally competitive with other high school orchestras around here. We’re playing repertoire at the same difficulty level as New Mexico School for the Arts, St. Michael’s and La Cueva in Albuquerque. Granted, they’re bigger programs, but that we’re able to play repertoire at the same level is something I’m super proud of, because when I took over the program we didn’t have that many really strong players who could handle that level of literature.

More stability in the middle schools has been super helpful. I think we’ve had the most retention in teachers in the middle school programs that feed into Santa Fe High these past few years, and it’s made a huge difference. When I first took over, I would maybe pick up four or five new freshmen every year...now, I’m picking up 15 to 20 new freshmen every year, and a lot of them are sticking with it.

How did you decide on the repertoire for the students’ All State Honors Concert performance?

Usually, when we plan a school concert, we’re doing two or three pieces, because we’ve learned them in only two months, which is a short amount of time. But I had to prepare 30 minutes of music, which is a lot for high school kids who don’t have this kind of experience, so I had to choose about six or seven pieces. I was like, ‘Let’s try to balance moods and stuff I think the kids would like to play.’ I threw a mariachi tune in there that I arranged myself, because I’m a professional mariachi, so I just had to do it.

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