Tuning Into The Key of Z

Meet a saxophonist playing his way into national attention
Zach Swanson posses with his personal alto saxophone. Zach has been playing the saxophone for 5 years, and now has goals to pursue a musical degree and career.
Zach Swanson posses with his personal alto saxophone. Zach has been playing the saxophone for 5 years, and now has goals to pursue a musical degree and career.

TThe sharp silence. It fills the cavernous corners of Clowes Memorial Hall at Butler University, plaguing the anticipating ears of all who fills the halls’ seats. Then a tidal wave of sound breaks the tension. The entire band erupts into beautiful harmony, each instrument playing their own part to make musical art. The saxophones in the ensemble are led by Zach Swanson, an NHS junior who’s been recognized as one of the best high school musicians in the nation.

Swanson’s playing time isn’t on the big stage, though—most of his time is spent at home, or in Noblesville High School’s practice rooms. Swanson says that he spends two to four hours in a day consistently practicing. Swanson credits that effort for his selection  to the Jazz Band of America, a prestigious group that selects only two saxophone players from across the United States for their ensemble. Recognized as one of the top bands for young musicians in the nation, the group will play at this year’s Music For All Festival in downtown Indianapolis in late March. Swanson says that his passion for music is one of the things that allows him to have such a golden opportunity.

“A lot of people do band for fun, and those people love playing, but they don’t love it to the point where they practice hours and hours,” Swanson said. “For me, at least, I’m willing to practice that amount because I want to do it as a career.”

That extreme love for music is something that Jazz Band Director Bethany Robinson says she sees every day in class. And she says it’s something that sets him apart from many of his peers in the group. 

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“There are students who really excel, but then they get stuck because they get bored,” Robinson said. “But then there are students who excel, and then they work outside of class to see how far they can go because they never get bored, and Zach is one of those students.”

However, Robinson hints that individual accolades and comparison to his classmates may not be the best way to judge Swanson’s impact. She says that his best quality is his leadership and personal skills. 

“[Zach leads] in a way that’s encouraging to the people in his section, while also holding them accountable,” Robinson said. “His classmates have a really good rapport with each other because of how he leads, which is in a really empathic, but challenging way.”

Swanson’s lifelong friend and jazz band classmate, junior bass player Jacob Gordon, has had a front row seat to what Swanson brings to any ensemble. Gordon has recognized Swanson’s talent since sixth grade, and the two currently play together in Combo Club, an extracurricular jazz band. 

“Zach never puts half-effort into anything. He’s the best saxophonist in the state,” Gordon said. “For some of us, playing can be shaky, but for Zach, he just comes in and gets it done perfectly.”

Artists who love playing as much as Swanson does—including those who plan to make a career in the field—are inspired by a love of music at an early age. Swanson credits his first inspiration to his mother, a musician who has passed down her own love of jazz to her children

“When I was younger, about four years old, my mom would take me out for car rides a lot, and she would play a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong,” Swanson said. “That’s what really got me into jazz music.” 

Robinson says that Swanson has a unique enthusiasm for the greatest jazz artists of all time. She sees how he studies the legends, and almost perfectly executes their styles into solos of his own.

“He’s done a ton of transcribing, which means he’s listening to very famous jazz songs and learning them just through listening and writing some things down,” Robinson said. “He’s learning a ton of soloing from the masters who played alto sax before him, and even other instruments. Then he will actually use those in his own solos.”

Moving forward, Swanson’s long-term goal is to focus on applying to multiple prestigious collegiate music programs, such as The Juilliard School in New York and Temple University of Philadelphia. For entry into these schools, a musical audition is necessary on top of a standard application.

“It can be a lot of pressure, especially if there’s a lot of colleges you want to go to, but it’s really what I want to do in the future,” Swanson said. “It’s my main point of focus, I’m really putting all my effort into it.”

“It was because of how he devoured the music that he had in front of him, and it was the style of playing, and it was his devotion to his private lessons, that caused him to improve so much more outside of class.” – Jazz Director Bethany Robinson

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About the Contributors
Max Habel
Max Habel, Staff Writer
Max is a junior at Noblesville High School. This is his second year on the Mill Stream staff. He enjoys watching The Office and playing tennis for Noblesville Boys Tennis. Contact him at [email protected].
Aiden Caddell
Aiden Caddell, Staff Writer
Aiden Caddell is a junior at NHS. This is his first year as a member of Mill Stream. He enjoys running, music, and watching his favorite sports teams. He can be contacted at [email protected].