A Positive First Impression by the Leader of the Band

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Mark de la Vega was 2 years old the first time Ben Ubovich lifted a baton above an ensemble of musicians at San Marino High School.
Ubovich retired this past spring after 27 years as director of instrumental music at SMHS, and de la Vega, whose background is predominantly in percussion, appears to be setting a brisk new beat as he succeeds him.
“I think we all worried about it being a challenge,” said Principal Mary Johnson, “but Mark simply stepped in with the kind of expertise the kids recognized. … He made an instantaneous connection with the students. It just happened. I consider him very charismatic.”
She used a few other expressions to describe him, too: high-energy, positive attitude, thorough professionalism, good communicator.
All of these traits were evident early Monday morning as the SMHS Marching Band rehearsed during zero period for its first home football game of the season, Friday night’s meeting with Sierra Vista.
“Is anyone missing in Trumpetland?” de la Vega said into a microphone while assessing the field show from the bleachers.
“Something funky is happening …”
“Good correction. Thank you.”
“Thank you for the hustle.”
His tone was gentle. His voice was never raised. He used the analogy of orbiting planets to describe a curving motion in one of the formations. And, yes, he often said “please” in addition to those “thank-yous.”
Band President Sandy Faure, asked for his early impressions of the new instrumental music director, said, “I could tell things were definitely going to change, and for the better. Mr. D la V is going to take this program in a new direction.”
How so?
“It’s just the fact that our band director is going to be participating more now,” Faure continued. “It’s going to allow us to reach a higher level of musical performance. The participation of the director isn’t something we’ve had as much of in the last years. Mr. D la V is helping run rehearsals. He’s helping us with all sorts of musical facets.”
De la Vega said he places a high value on personal involvement, as opposed to delegating responsibilities, while also recognizing a strong self-starter mentality among the kids.
“These students amaze me every day with their work ethic and commitment to achievement,” he said. “I was absent for one day and thought we’d be behind, but they actually extrapolated my plans and achieved them. Their independence and the leadership that is going on here is just outstanding. This is stuff that is not happening at any regular public high school in Southern California.”
De la Vega’s musical training began at age 6 when his mother coaxed him onto a piano bench. He played into his high school years, when his older sister joined the high school marching band. A few San Marino parents can probably relate to this sentiment: “My mother insisted,” de la Vega said, “in order to avoid two trips to pick us up, that I join the marching band.”
He gravitated to percussion, and continued with it at UC Irvine, earning a bachelor of music in percussion (“You can joke, I really did major in triangle”) as well as a bachelor of arts in political science. While getting his teaching credential at Cal State Long Beach, de la Vega took method classes in woodwinds, double reeds, strings and brass with the express purpose of preparing for a job like this one.
Like most high school instrumental music programs, San Marino requires versatility in its director, because the musical expressions are so varied in the move from symphony orchestra to concert band to wind ensemble to marching band to jazz ensemble.
“Music is a multifaceted subject,” de la Vega said. “With these students, we can get into the nitty gritty of what a piece is really about, so we’re not really focusing on just notes and rhythms, but we can take it to that next level: What information is not on the page? What information can you gather from the history of the piece? Or the composer? It’s something that you don’t necessarily get from the performance, but it definitely informs it.”
Beyond the music, this is not someone who is just seeking applause at performances or awards at competitions. Or even students whose main accomplishment is mastery of an instrument.
“I believe that music, just like any subject, is a medium to teach these students real-world, applicable skills,” de la Vega said. “So while I’m teaching them how to play in tune or play together or play their instrument, technique-wise, it really is about work ethic, dedication, having a sense of community and taking care of that community, and personal responsibility. Those are the skills I hope students develop over time. …
“I can get into things like, ‘The Marching Band is not moving in time,’ or, ‘In the Concert Band, the clarinets aren’t balanced all the way,’ but the reality is, are they better people coming through the program?”

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