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How four musicians from a tiny Maine high school soared above national competition

Their attitude kept them positive: “We’ll just do the best we can, just do our thing.”

EASTPORT, Maine — The easternmost city in the United States also has the distinction of being the smallest city in Maine. Just under 1,300 people live in Eastport. In New York or California, that’s not the population of a city—it’s the population of an apartment building.

Against the odds, Eastport still has its own high school, Shead High School, with an enrollment of just 87 students. While no one gets lost or left behind in such an intimate environment, the low numbers present formidable challenges. Music teacher Robert Sanchez puts it plainly: “If you can play and you’re good, you’re going to be in the jazz program.”

And what a program it is. This year, the school’s quartet, the Shead Ahead Jazz Combo, won the only gold medal at the state high school jazz festival—an impressive accomplishment in itself for a school with so few students.

Dig deeper, though, and the story gets even better. Little more than a year ago, two members of the quartet, bassist Antonio Vizcarrondo and guitarist Nate Tardiff, didn’t even play an instrument. As they were watching the school’s jazz group, an idea struck. They thought it would be “cool if we were just up there kind of shredding away on the guitars,” Vizcarrondo said. 

“A couple of weeks later we found out we could get into the classes," Vizcarrondo added. "We started coming in here and practicing every day, and before we knew it we were in the band.”

Also in the band was Ellis Zipper-Sanchez, an eighth grader who is an exceptionally gifted guitar player and admirer of jazz legend Wes Montgomery, and Kieran Weston, a drummer who apparently came out of the womb with musical talent. 

“I’ve never had one [drum] lesson in my life,” Weston said. “And I couldn’t tell you the last time I practiced.”

One month after the state championship, Shead Ahead traveled to Philadelphia to compete in the prestigious National Jazz Festival. The other schools there had all kinds of advantages—more students, more support, more money.

“I went and watched all these different bands from Princeton, New Jersey, and Manhattan, and all these places,” Weston recalls. “I said this is just amazing, the level of music is amazing. And I said we’ll just do the best we can, just do our thing.”

An intimidating atmosphere? It certainly was to Nate Tardiff. 

“I was shaking a lot,” Tardiff said. “It was like at some points after I played a chord, I looked down and I was shaking.”

When this national competition ended, the four musicians—not one of whom can read music—from a school with 87 students on the far edge of Maine, had finished second. Take that, Manhattan.

“Robert Sanchez won’t take the credit for that,” Shead High School Principal Paul Theriault said of the quartet’s director and arranger. “But, boy, he is just an amazing, amazing person.”

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