The last Homecoming firework fizzles out and the clapping quiets. Inside the BTS, spectators shift their attention to the CU Jazz Band, which clusters to the left of the front door. There’s a count-off — “a-one, a-two, a-one, two, three, four” — and then good jazz happens.
Just as the first song starts sizzling, Simon Yeh, the student director and lead saxophonist, stands up, waits a beat, and solos like a pro.
“On clarinet, Simon’s as good as any major. On saxophone, he’s extraordinarily good. He’s unusually good. He’s professionally good already,” said music professor Bruce Curlette, who gives Yeh clarinet lessons.
Yeh is a senior saxophone performance major with a focus in jazz studies. He plays saxophone, clarinet and flute. Yeh said his goal is to play jazz music professionally, though he also enjoys teaching students and leading ensembles. His next step is to audition for graduate school.
“(Yeh is) probably in the top five percent of students I’ve worked with in 45 years of teaching,” said Michael DiCuirci, the director of the jazz band.
Chet Jenkins, Yeh’s saxophone teacher, said he thinks Yeh has been well-prepared through jazz band and music lessons and won’t find many barriers to grad school admission.
DiCuirci said he also believes Yeh has many grad school options.
“(Yeh’s) probably one of the better jazz players in the state of Ohio,” he said. “I think he can go to any school or conservatory he should choose.”
Yeh’s grad school choices include Michigan State, Indiana University, College-Conservatory of Music, Frost School of Music and University of Maryland.
“I have a lot of options (for grad school),” Yeh said. “But I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s scary.”
Though he professes trust in his God and confidence in his abilities, Yeh said that he doesn’t have it all together.
“I’ve hit rock bottom before,” he said. “I remember one time in high school I was having a tough time with certain decisions. I remember (that I lay) in the fetal position … repeating the word ‘isolation’ to myself because I thought that’s what the answer was.”
For Yeh, the word “isolation” encapsulates the summer before he came to college. He practiced saxophone so much that the neighbors complained. What’s more, he scheduled his practicing to avoid eating with his family. Yeh said many of his relationships withered.
“My spiritual life was in the garbage,” he said. “I lost touch with people and with God … I was dying spiritually and probably physically, too, because all I ate that whole summer was Cheese Cuppa Noodles.”
But despite those stresses, Yeh said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“God put that in my life for a reason,” he said. “(Without it) I wouldn’t have learned (what I did). He put it in my life to make me a better musician and a better person at the same time.”
Yeh has emerged from isolation gradually. When he first arrived at Cedarville he became, as he called it, “a hermit in the practice rooms.”
Yeh said as a sophomore, however, his reclusiveness shrank when he got to play sax at an All-Access prospective student event. He assembled a jazz combo in which each player selected and directed a song. He ranks their collaboration as one of the best he’s ever had because they gelled so well as a group.
“I loved playing with them,” Yeh said. “It added so much to my life and encouraged me to encourage others.”
Yeh said that since then he’s been learning how to lead a balanced life of music and faith. He no longer spends 10 hours a day in the practice rooms, but instead gives more of his time to his friends and family.
One of the ways he’s chosen to starve his isolationist tendencies is to avoid bitterness and callousness.
“Never hold a grudge,” Yeh said. “It kills relationships with people. Jesus Christ is the prime example (that) God does not want that. … He could’ve held a grudge against us for being idiots. But he came, and he still loves us. And he’s not asking anything of us except that we give ourselves up, (that we) say ‘Hey, I can’t do it. Help me.’”
Yeh’s recent musical highlights include collaborating with composers, directing ensembles and participating in master classes. Also, last spring he was the first Cedarville student accepted into Ohio’s Intercollegiate Jazz Band, an achievement DiCuirci described as “a feather in his cap.”
“I hope he’ll flunk everything and stay here another five years or so,” DiCuirci joked. “Guys like him don’t come around very often. But he is ready to move on to some new challenges. I hope he finishes well and moves on with distinction.”
Nate Spanos is a senior music major and a reporter for Cedars. He co-authors a blog about growth in Christ called Understory. You can explore it at jesusknife.com.