Two Sides, Same Coin

Ameena Khawaja and Danko Druško have big plans for COJAC, including teaching older students to mentor newcomers. “This doesn’t happen in music school,” Khawaja says.

In the middle of the pandemic, Youth Orchestra Salinas Executive Director Ameena Maria Khawaja and Music Director Danko Druško were throwing some ideas around, after managing to pull off a virtual orchestra for 100 young Salinas musicians. They wanted to play up the potential reach of a virtual orchestra, bringing together musicians from all around the world. They also thought about bringing together types of music; professional musicians either play for classical orchestras and symphonies, or in jazz ensembles, but not both. Where, they thought, was the bridge?

“There are not that many differences,” Druško says. “In jazz you may learn certain patterns, but everyone is learning scales and you put it together in a performance.”

Khawaja notes that young musicians may dabble in both, but as they move up the rungs and perhaps into professional music, they’re separated into one channel or the other. “There’s no good reason they’re separate,” she says. The duo thought Monterey County, with its own symphony and a world-renowned jazz festival, would be the perfect place to create this academic bridge. And the local music community would help bring it together.

In collaboration with organizations like Monterey Jazz Festival, Monterey Symphony, Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz, Hartnell College and others, the husband-and-wife duo created California Central Coast Orchestra and Jazz Academy (COJAC). Like other intensive music academies, it has an audition process, open to ages 14-24. But instead of drawing from a national pool of talent, they’re opening it up to a global audience, especially those who are currently participating in or are graduates of El Sistema or El Sistema-inspired programs, like YOSAL. (For those students, participation is totally free.) In its current season, student musicians come from as far away as rural Canada and Greenland and as nearby as Santa Cruz and Salinas.

Students are split between two classes, jazz or classical, but will come together to learn from each other and play together on select days and performances. Classes are led by notable music educators like MJF’s Gerald Clayton and Civic Orchestra of Chicago Principal Conductor Cliff Colnot. And so far, it’s fun for instructors and for students. “Teaching students who learned classical that we can use scales to make their own music [improv] is mind-blowing, because they’re used to adhering to what’s in front of them,” Khawaja says.

Older students, ages 19-24, are entered into leadership workshops to build mentorship into the program. Druško says part of the program was designed so that younger musicians have a more “immediate” role model. “When they look at [instructors], it’s sometimes hard for them to imagine becoming a professional musician, but someone 19 or 21, they begin to think, ‘Oh, OK I can do this,’” he says.

Marielle Argueza is a staff writer and calendar editor for the Weekly. She covers education, immigration and culture. Additionally, she covers the areas of Marina and South County. She occasionally writes about food and runs the internship program.

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