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Vern Sielert well versed in challenges of being guest artist

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FARMINGTON — When faculty members in the music department at San Juan College try to decide on a guest artist to bring in for their annual Jazzfest celebration each spring, musical acumen is only one of the criteria they use.

It's just as important to feature a musician who has the people skills to come in and establish a connection with students in a short period of time, says Teun Fetz, director of instrumental music at the college.

"I generally go with people I am familiar with and who I know are great people," Fetz said Tuesday while preparing for a rehearsal for this year's Jazzfest concert, which takes place Friday at the college.

While it may be tempting to extend an invitation to a phenomenal player, the logic of making a move like that fails if the artist is self-absorbed and unable to relate to other musicians who still have a lot to learn, Fetz said. So he and Delbert Anderson, another member of the college's music faculty who oversees the school's jazz program, make sure their choice for a Jazzfest guest artist each year is someone whose people skills match their talent.

Fetz believes he has chosen wisely with this year's selection, Vern Sielert, professor of trumpet, director of jazz studies and artistic director of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho. The two have known each other since they were graduate students together at the University of Illinois in the late 1990s.

"He's down to earth and really easy to work with," Fetz said of his former colleague.

Sielert is also a gifted artist who has written a great deal of music, Fetz said, noting that Sielert is skilled at leading all kinds of jazz groups. He has a firm grasp of the history of the genre and is especially adept at teaching improvisation, Fetz said.

"He was a perfect choice," Fetz said. "I'm glad we could get him and he was willing to do it."

Sielert was due to arrive here Wednesday night and will have only a couple of days to work with students before serving as the main soloist for Friday's performance. But he appears at several workshops and clinics at colleges all around the country each year, so he is well accustomed to that format and believes he understands how to make it work with students.

"I'm used to being the person who comes in from the outside to say the things that reinforce what they've heard before," he said Wednesday during a telephone interview from Phoenix. "It's generally a pretty fun thing to do."

In addition to performing Friday night, Sielert will work with middle school, high school and college musicians throughout the day on Friday, as Jazzfest activities get underway at 8 a.m. and continue throughout the day. Sielert said he plans on spending a good deal of his time here emphasizing improvisation.

"That's the main thing we do as jazz players," he said. "I approach it as you would learning a language, where you're imitating what you hear."

Sielert said the key to making such short-but-intense learning opportunities worthwhile is really listening to the students and having realistic expectations for how much they can absorb.

"It's not expecting them to be something different," he said. "You want to inspire them to get to a different level and have fun. It's a social endeavor, and that's a big part of it, too."

Fetz said that aspect of college jazz festivals is often overlooked. He has very fond memories of his experiences at such events as a youngster.

"When I was a student, these types of events meant a lot," he said, describing them as opportunities to become more active and grow as a musician.

Friday's concert will feature three tunes by the San Juan College Jazz Combo and six tunes by the San Juan College Big Band. The groups are mostly made up of students but also feature some community members.

The Jazzfest concert begins at 7 p.m. Friday in the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Hall on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students, and $12 for seniors and children age 12 and younger. Call 505-566-3465.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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