The Redwood High School Symphonic Band was blaring away during practice, and no one was louder than director John Mattern. Standing on the conductor's podium, he was alternately cracking his thin white baton against a metal music stand and snapping his fingers, trying desperately to get his musicians on the beat.
Suddenly, he waved the whole thing off by chopping the air with one of his arms. "All the right notes at the wrong time consist of a wrong note," he said as the cacophony of trumpets, flutes and other instruments deflated like a balloon. "I'm concerned you're not hitting the rhythm."
Mattern, 43, is director of the school's music program. Since taking over the job in January 2004, Mattern has tripled enrollment.
Earlier this year, classical music station KDFC of San Francisco named him 2006 Music Educator of the Year, selecting him from among 600 school music teachers in Northern California.
"He has a passion for music," said Tim Wilson, whose son plays trombone in Mattern's band. Wilson knows music passion when he sees it. He played trumpet for the San Francisco Opera from 1980 to 2003, rising to be the principal player.
Wilson said one of the biggest improvements Mattern is making involves teaching the students how to listen to the entire band - and not just to their own performance. The ability to teach such things stems from Mattern's background as a bluegrass and jazz musician who can dazzle on a banjo or a saxophone. "He has a wide range of experience," Wilson said.
Mattern is a third-generation native of Ukiah, where he played saxophone in school bands. But he didn't get fired up about music until he saw a bluegrass band play live when he was a teenager. "I'll never forget that day," he said. "I'm a five-string banjo player at heart."
Mattern studied music in college, going so far as to receive a master's in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory in Boston before returning to Ukiah to take over the student band led by his former teacher. He did that for 12 years before trying his hand at business. But nothing compared with music. "It called me back," he said. Redwood had an immediate opening and Mattern took it but, with three kids in school, he didn't want to uproot his family. So he commutes from Ukiah, leaving the house at 4:30 a.m. to beat morning traffic through Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Novato and San Rafael. On a good day, the commute takes 90 minutes. If his timing is off, it can take more than 3 1/2 hours.
One of the first things Mattern did at Redwood was inquire about teaching a guitar class. More than 110 students registered.
"He's bringing the garage band kids into the music program," said Brent Donaldson of Redwood High Music Boosters.
Donaldson said that, with major help from a parent, the music classes now have University of California accreditation. That means the guitar players can take music classes without jeopardizing the requirements needed to attend a UC school.
"It's phenomenal," Donaldson said. "Those garage band kids are getting the same credit as someone in the symphonic program."
Mattern also turned a storage room into a working music studio, complete with sound-proofed walls, top-notch microphones and other gear. The liner notes from his most recent jazz CD - the John Mattern Quartet - reveal that the album was recorded in the school studio. There's even a photo of the band recording there.
Watching Mattern lead the symphonic band is a performance unto itself. His head bobs and his foot stomps the lectern. He slaps his thigh in time with the beat, scrunches his face and, when he isn't laughing, a thick vein on the right side of his neck looks ready to burst. All the while, Mattern is snapping his fingers and cracking that baton on the music stand.
"One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two, three, four, five, six," he shouted over the band.
Junior Nick Dugdale, a 16-year-old bass clarinet player, said Mattern's pursuit of perfection is relentless. That can be difficult if someone is slacking, but it pushes musicians to make the most of their abilities. "He'll lose it sometimes, but the band benefits," Dugdale said. "He's taught us to always improve and never be mediocre."
Mattern said he knows 90 percent of the students won't pursue music into college or make it a career. But a band leader can teach students some of life's most important principles, such as showing up on time, practicing, learning to listen and, he said, always bringing a pencil.
"There's so much you can do with a high school band," he said.