Saxophone player rounds up musical year

Alyssa Sykuta

Ben Bergstrom (second from the left) and his band, Table of Five, performs his Jazz piece at Whitmore Recital Hall on April 21. Photo by Daphne Yu
When Ben Bergstrom started his junior year of high school, suffering through the sweltering heat of summer marching band practices for the sake of music, he had no idea he was about to take his passion and talents to a whole new octave.
An alto saxophone player since his middle school years, Bergstrom began his impressive musical record last year by being one of the only three sophomores from Rock Bridge to make the Missouri All-State Band.
Not to be outdone this year, he reached for tougher competition and found it in the annual Music Teachers National Associations competition.
Bergstrom began practicing in June, signed for MTNA in September and competed at the state level in November. Because he was the only saxophone to qualify from Missouri, Bergstrom easily made it to the division level. There, he competed against five other wind players – the winners from five other states – for the title of Division Winner and a chance to move onto nationals. Bergstrom traveled to Colorado in January and wowed the judges, spilling musical ambrosia from the lips of his golden sax into the atmosphere, all the while telling himself to ‘calm down’ and not to be nervous. One thing helping his nerves was the fact that he was in competition mode and not concert mode.
“It wasn’t like there was an audience or anything, so I was five feet away from the judges,” Bergstrom said. “I was honestly just thinking about playing well and having some sort of stage presence.”
Around the time Bergstrom learned he was moving on to nationals, he also entered his first musical composition into the Creating Original Music Project (COMP) with his piece, “Nessy.” The piece, scored for his band Table for Five, includes parts for piano, electric guitar, bass, saxophone and drums and placed third in the Jazz category of COMP.
The annual competition, provided by the University of Missouri- Columbia for students in kindergarten through grade 12, awarded Bergstrom with a cash prize of $500 for himself and another $500 for RBHS’ music department. The money awarded to the school will certainly be used in the future, but according to band director Steve Mathews, it is not planned to go toward anything in particular as of now.
“It’s just deposited into the [band’s bank] account,” Mathews said. “We don’t know yet [what it will be used for], but it was a pretty cool thing.”
Bergstrom first heard of the competition from his fellow band member, drummer Joshua Blythe, senior at HHS and last year’s third place winner for COMP with his piece, “Trial by Fire.” Inspired by Blythe, Bergstrom decided to give it a try this year and began composing the piece in September. Although Bergstrom’s composition placed third, the accomplishment did not come without hardships. Accustomed to his own instrument, alto saxophone, Bergstrom found it difficult to fit his own ideas for saxophone with parts for each of the other instruments in his band.
“Obviously you need more than one instrument to be playing together,” Bergstrom said, “and when I first came up with the idea for my song, it was what I was playing on my saxophone. So coming up with what the other instruments should be playing, especially the ones I’m not as familiar with, was the hardest part.”
The composition process began with practices where Bergstrom introduced his main melody to the band and they worked to develop the piece from there.
“Really, most of the work was done by Ben,” Blythe said. “Whenever he first presented the idea to us of his melody he wanted to base the whole thing off of, he asked us to kind of help him get an idea where he was going so he showed us the melody and we all kind of filled in the blanks but he ultimately decided what he wanted to do.”
Despite the obstacle, “Nessy” clearly was a hit with the COMP judges. Though it took much time and effort to put the composition together, Bergstrom thinks it is worth the work, considering he has already decided to study music after high school.
“I kind of just wanted to use [COMP] as a motivation to get something done,” Bergstrom said. “I really would like to compose a lot in the future.”
As Bergstrom’s junior year comes to a close, the musical experiences and the lessons he learned this year will follow him forever.
“It was crazy. It was a great experience. I learned more from playing in that competition than I have from anything else in a really long time,” Bergstrom said. Music “is just what I like to do.”
By Alyssa Sykuta and Daphne Yu
Listen to Bergstrom’s piece, Nessy.