GWINN - For Christmas at the age of 8, Kaleb Kangas received an electric guitar.
Now an 18-year-old senior at the Gwinn High School, Kangas has gone a long way with that instrument.
Since starting to serious play at the age of 12, Kangas has developed into a jazz guitarist. He was recently named as the only Upper Peninsula representative to the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association's All-State Jazz Band, to perform in Grand Rapids in January. He is also the first from the Gwinn program to be selected, although the district has produced several honorable mention students.
Gwinn High School senior Kaleb Kangas, 18, is the only Upper Peninsula student selected to participate in the All-State jazz band in January. Here Kangas practices guitar with the GHS jazz band. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
"I was really excited when I found out," Kangas said. "This is the pinnacle of what you can get to (in high school)."
The All-State program provides a chance for middle school and high school students from across the state to audition for and participate in high-quality ensembles, including jazz band, concert band and orchestra. Area students have also been placed in the concert band and orchestra. More than 2,000 students auditioned for the various All-State programs.
Kangas and other students sent in taped auditions which required them to play a prepared piece, as well as sight reading (playing a piece of music without having prepared it) and improvising. As a guitar player, Kangas' audition also included a demonstration of his ability to accompany other musicians, testing his knowledge of chords.
"It's an exceptional honor," said Dave Dagenais, director of the Gwinn High School jazz band.
Kangas got his start in jazz playing in the middle school jazz band program that was held in Gwinn at the time. Being home-schooled at the time also allowed him to start taking private guitar lessons with Marquette musician Dave Ziegner.
"I didn't know much about jazz at the time," Kangas said.
That soon changed as jazz has become Kangas' focus.
The past two summers, Kangas has attended the Interlochen Center for the Arts jazz program downstate, allowing him to work with renowned instructors as well as other talented young musicians from around the world.
"There were people from the Virgin Islands, Japan," Kangas said. "It was very great working with those people."
Practicing seven hours a day was also part of the experience.
"It was crazy," he said. "It was just you and your instrument. It was a really enlightening experience."
Between all the practicing, the lessons, the GHS jazz band, annual trips to the Northern Michigan University Jazz Fest, Kangas has set his sights on becoming a professional jazz guitarist.
Accepted at Western Michigan University after he graduates from Gwinn, Kangas, who also sings and is learning piano, will be auditioning to be in the university's prestigious jazz music program, where he hopes to double major in jazz studies and music education.
"Either way it's going to be music. There's no alternative," he said.
Facing the rigorous audition process to enter the music program, Kangas is hoping his experiences with the All-State jazz band will help boost his musical resume.
"You want to tell them all the stuff you've accomplished," he said. "This is really going to help me."
Besides the experience, the All-State band is also a chance to work with other musicians who are just as dedicated to music.
"It automatically clicks," Kangas said. "These people share the same passion as you.
"Your bandmates really push you."
Beyond the auditions and lessons and workshops, however, is the high school senior's love of the music.
"The thing about jazz is it's so extensive," Kangas said. "Jazz is a very free form of music. It opens up your creativity."
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.