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Passing notes with Jeff Williams

There’s something eerie about the silence of a school band room on the first day of summer vacation.

But as Jeff Williams catches up with Kelly Haines, Connor O’Toole and Ryan Everson in the deserted-until-August band room at Bob Miller Middle School in Henderson, the vibe is brightened colorfully by their joshing banter that’s filled with laughs and smiles and peppered with inside jokes and jabs and shared experiences.

Haines, O’Toole and Everson were Williams’ students during their sixth- seventh- and eighth-grade years at Miller. It was under Williams’ instruction that they learned to play the musical instruments — bassoon, saxophone and French horn, respectively — they’re mastering. And it was under his direction that they discovered both their love of music and their desire to pursue professional music careers.

All three students will begin their senior year of high school in August. But, first, they’ll be spending six weeks attending summer camp at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in northwestern Michigan.

That they were accepted into the exclusive program is testament to their talent, and that all three young musicians were awarded full-ride, merit scholarships — worth about $8,000 apiece — is testament to what they’ve done with their talent.

Williams is quick to put his former students’ accomplishments into perspective.

Although it’s “very nice of them to be kind and nice and humble about it,” he says, Interlochen accepts only “the best of the best in the entire world. There’s a big fight just to get in. It’s cutthroat to earn a scholarship, and to earn a full ride is extraordinarily hard to do.”

But as Williams proudly talks up his former students, consider this: Having three former students be accepted into Interlochen on full scholarships says a lot about how good a music teacher Williams is, too.

Haines, who attends Interlochen’s high school program during the regular school year, describes Interlochen as “Disneyland for musicians.”

Everson, who’s never been there, and O’Toole, who was there once before for a summer program, laugh.

“It really is,” Haines says. “It’s great being there. There’s always something going on, whether it’s people practicing or performing, and we’re in between two lakes, and you can see violinists practicing by the lake.”

“It’s almost like you lose yourself there,” O’Toole says. “It almost becomes your home in a way. You feel so welcome around so many incredible people you meet, and all of them are around the same level as you.”

In fact, because Interlochen alums tend to pursue professional performing careers, “these are people you might end up working with later in life,” he adds.

Everson has heard stories about Interlochen from Haines and O’Toole. By now, he jokes, “it’s probably like a myth to me.”

But, he says, “now that I’ve taken music more seriously, I want to see more of what’s out there. I want to see what’s out there just beyond Nevada. I want to see how I stack up on a national level.”

When they’ve completed the summer program, Everson will begin his senior year at Coronado High School, O’Toole will begin his senior year at Las Vegas Academy and Haines will return to Interlochen for her senior year. Haines and Everson plan to pursue careers in music performance, while O’Toole expects to spend his music career “more on the education side.”

“I’m a classical saxophonist,” he says, “and there really are no careers in performance for classical saxophone.”

All three students credit Williams with helping to inspire their love of music and at least the beginnings of their desire to pursue careers in it. Everson remembers an eighth-grade Heritage Festival trip at which Miller school “won first place in everything.”

“I got a little trophy for a solo he gave me,” Everson says. “It was like that night that it really hit me, like, ‘I really should do this professionally, and I feel like I have the potential to take it that far.’

“He always told me I could,” Everson says. “I didn’t believe him.”

Haines’ father is a music educator, and she began playing before entering Miller Middle School. But Haines says Williams always has been “one of my main supporters for playing music” who’d even attend her post-Miller performances just because “he wanted to.”

O’Toole remembers Williams playing the “Mars” movement of Holst’s “The Planets” even before the middle school music students began to learn their instruments.

“I remember falling in love with it, and I realized that music and band was going to be something more than just a class,” O’Toole says.

What makes Williams such a good teacher? For Haines, it was that “even if you didn’t necessarily want to do this, he was still there to help and encourage you.”

“The thing that really motivated me is how passionate Mr. Williams is about what he does, how he really reached out to all the students even if they’re not, like, the most musically talented or don’t want to pursue it,” Everson says. “Like, if all they want is to do this for fun, he still cares about them.”

Is Williams surprised that three former students from the same class would go so far — and end up studying together at Interlochen — after leaving Miller Middle School?

“No, not surprised at all,” he says, smiling. “They’re just such incredibly gifted, talented kids.”

He catches himself and laughs.

“Well, they were kids. They’re not anymore. But when they started, they were just incredibly hard workers and dedicated students. I’m not surprised at all, and this is only the beginning.”

Even as relative beginners at Miller, each loved music “and just fed off of getting better,” Williams says. “Every new skill they learned would encourage them to do even more. So they just didn’t stop. They wanted to be better all the time, and they just enjoyed it more every day that they got better, and that’s something that you can’t uncatch.”

Williams calls his journey to Miller Middle School “not really as interesting a story” as his students’.

Williams grew up in Arizona and started playing in fifth grade. “I had an inspiring teacher who really allowed me to enjoy (music) and made me want to be better and get more out of it, and it just kind of grew into a career,” he says.

He earned bachelor’s degrees in tuba performance and music education at Northern Arizona University — he’d later earn a master’s degree in music from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — and moved to Southern Nevada with his wife, a Las Vegas native, 16 years ago.

Coincidentally, Williams did his student teaching under Haines’ father, a high school band director.

“So I taught her and he taught me. It’s a tight circle,” Williams says. “But we got to be really good friends and he was an amazing mentor. Many years later, I took a job here and they lived in the zone. It was, ‘Wow, what a small world.’ ”

Williams taught at Duane D. Keller Middle School before moving to Miller Middle School when it opened. Williams had done his student teaching at the high school level, and, initially, “that was what I wanted to do,” he says.

But, after arriving here, “I had the option of subbing or taking a midyear job, and it was much better to get in and get going,” he says.

And there, Williams discovered that he loved teaching middle school students.

“It’s a challenge, but I wouldn’t teach anything else,” he says. “I love this age. It’s an amazing time to work with kids. You can do so much good for them and see them grow so much. I love it.”

Haines, Everson and O’Toole kept in touch with Williams after leaving Miller school, and all remember the encouragement he offered during their days there. Like any group of people who have forged a history together, Williams and his now-former students share some odd memories.

So: Any embarrassing stories to share?

“Oh, no, we don’t go there,” Williams says, laughing and mock-recoiling at the thought.

Well, O’Toole says, “we always heard that he knew how to ride a unicycle. We begged him and begged him, and he promised if we’d donate a certain amount of money to the band program, he’d ride his unicycle at one of our concerts. And he did.

“He wore a chicken suit,” Haines adds.

Williams laughs and covers his face.

“He rode around the gym,” Haines says.

Now, as his former students head off to summer camp, Williams will be doing the same. He’ll spend a week this summer teaching at Curry Summer Music Camp at Northern Arizona University.

Williams calls it “indescribably” cool that his students, who are moving closer and closer to becoming his colleagues, have come so far.

“I remember all the crazy sounds they made when they started,” he says, smiling. “Then the first time they really got good sounds and were able to play a song or two, well, yeah, to see them at this level, it’s the greatest reward.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.

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