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Musician pops in to inspire tomorrow's performers' hopes

Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, who has shared the stage with music's greats, steps out of the spotlight to motivate young musicians.

By JONATHAN MILTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002

BELMONT HEIGHTS -- More than 200 aspiring young musicians listened in awe one day last week in a gym at Young Middle School. Warm melodies flowed like milk chocolate from a multihued stage as jazz trumpeter Chris Botti played the jazz standard My Funny Valentine.

Despite a busy life on the road with recording artist Sting, Botti occasionally coaches budding musicians about the importance of training and practice.

"You make a decision to become a professional musician at a young age. It doesn't just happen later in life," he told the students.

They had questions for him.

"How long do you practice?" one boy asked.

He had answers that sounded like hard work.

"In the ages of 12, 13, 14 and 15, I was probably practicing between three to four hours a day," Botti said.

The 40-year-old trumpet player has been playing since age 8. His early dedication, and the inspiration he drew from other musicians, drove Botti, he said.

That brought up another question.

Who had inspired him, a student sitting in back wondered.

Botti didn't hesitate before answering.

"When I was a kid, all I did was listen to Miles Davis and practice my instrument," he said. "It took me on a journey, which to this day, has been very fulfilling."

Many students hadn't the slightest clue who Miles Davis was, yet they seemed to sense the significance.

Botti shared highlights from his ongoing career as a professional musician.

He has shared concert halls with Sting, Frank Sinatra, Beck, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Natalie Merchant. He had recorded soundtracks, put out albums as a solo artist and even played the theme song for a network news show. As the list went on, students looked at each other in amazement.

Botti seemed to enjoy talking about his adventures. His face shined with enthusiasm, whether he was playing My Funny Valentine or fielding questions from kids.

"I've made it my goal to go out with kids and really try to support band programs," he said.

Young Middle School's band director, Dan Slyker, feels the same when it comes to music in schools.

"It gives kids an identity," Slyker said. "A lot of kids that don't do anything, envy the band kids for what they have."

Slyker says it takes a good teacher to build confidence in a student. He likened determination to a video game . "In a new video game, you die on the first level all the time," he said. "But then you try again, and get really good at the game."

After a few words of insight and exchange of laughs, it was back to playing tunes. Botti was joined by eighth-grade students Chris Fletcher on trombone, Juan Villegas and Caitlin Terry on alto saxophone and Philip Einsmann on trumpet, and faculty musicians Dean Laber on guitar, Dan Slyker on drums and Joe Grady on bass, as they performed an arrangement of Miles Davis' Freddie Freeloader.

The somewhat shy quartet of student musicians performing on stage with Botti began to display a prideful persona of joy. Students in the audience marveled at high notes that Botti hit during his solo.

As the piece neared its end, students began a thunderous applaud.

It was no longer a Friday morning at school. It was a point in life that some students would remember. One day, they would look back and remember this, the day they were inspired to fulfill a dream.

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