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'Instead of a class, he wants us to be family.' Yuma High band makes music with a coda of community

Yuma High School music teacher, Robert Zahllerr
Rae Solomon
Yuma High School music teacher Robert Zahller.

If you hear kids making music anywhere in Yuma, Colorado, you probably have Robert Zahller to thank. He’s the sole instrumental music teacher for the school district, which means he spends his days running back and forth between the town’s only middle and high schools, helping the local kids learn their scales.

But he’s more than a music teacher: He’s an event. Zahller is a high-energy optimist. He uses the influence that comes with charisma to spread his passion for collective music-making.

Yuma is a small town of about 3,500 people on Colorado’s far eastern plains, right in the middle of one of the state’s most productive agricultural areas. The downtown is an island surrounded by miles of farmland, pasture and feedlots.

But in the midst of those endless cornfields, Robert Zahller has carved out such a special place for his high school music program that teens flock to the band room.

“(Zahller) is the main reason most people go into band,” Sam Wells explained. And she would know. Wells took trumpet with Zahller starting in the fifth grade until she graduated from Yuma High School last spring. They still keep in touch.

“He had a great personality. It was always fun,” Wells said. “When we walked in his room, the whole school knew him. So a lot of kids wondered, like, maybe band isn't so bad just since (Zahller’s) a good guy.

Zahller is 40 with a youthful energy that makes him come across as more peer than parent. He has strong ties to Yuma, the town where he grew up. He’s a proud graduate of the high school where he now teaches. When his own kids get older, they will follow suit. He credits the music teachers he had there when he was a teenager with inspiring his teaching style and philosophy.

In a room full of teens holding acoustic guitars, an adult man in a sweater visit instructs the class.
Rae Solomon
Yuma High School music teacher Robert Zahller (center) leads students in an acoustic guitar lesson.

“Being in band and having the teachers that I had shaped me and turned me into what I hope I am for other kids,” he said.

Today, the high school band isn’t just one of the most popular classes in school — it’s an institution. But that wasn’t always the case. When Zahller first returned to Yuma 15 years ago to take on the job of band leader, the program was anemic.

“I think there were 16 in that group … it was just barely enough to fill up the first two rows of the band room.”  he said, consulting the picture he keeps on his desk of that very first crop of band students. “And I had that moment of ‘Oh, no! This might not work.’”

He spent the summer before that first school year knocking on doors, making a personal connection with each student.

“I was nervous when I saw the list: ‘Oh, man, if they know it's another new teacher, they might bail,’” he said, referring to a revolving door of band teachers the high school had just seen. “So I tried to get to each one during the summer and say, ‘Maybe if you're on the fence, let me talk you into one more year.’ I tried to throw a net over them.”

And it worked. Within a few years, he had created so much excitement about the high school band that with 80 band members, the small band room was bursting at the seams. He had to start discouraging kids from joining.

“I never turned anyone away,” Zahller said, “but I did encourage them as they were eighth graders to make sure they're doing it for the musicianship and not just the environment.”

This year, he has 46 students in band.

“Forty-six feels really comfortable,” he said. “I think that I hit at least everybody with a hello or a personal something every time they come to class.”

It helps that he has a sense of humor — teenagers love that. But he’s so successful with the kids because he doesn’t really see his role as just making music with them. As band teacher, he says his job is building a community.

“This is a spot, and this is a group that kids need and some kids, need more than others,” he said.

Several years ago, Ann Godfrey’s kids needed Zahller’s band. They moved to Yuma as teenagers — a hard time to join a tight-knit, small-town school. Godfrey’s daughter, Libby, was in 10th grade.

Zahllerr is looking down at a black acoustic guitar and adjusting the tension on the strings while smiling
Rae Solomon
Robert Zahller tunes a student's guitar in his Intro to Guitar class.

“She started in beginning guitar, and I'm like, it’s an easy A, Libby, just go have fun,” Godfrey recently recalled.

She said Libby was not particularly musical. But, “she fell in love with Mr. Zahller. And next thing you know, she's in band playing the cowbell. He just brought her in with open arms and got her in the loop and really helped her build strong bonds with the school and with all her friends. It was amazing.”

Zahller emphasizes community first. He said once those social bonds are established, the music follows, “sometimes to the fault of it's almost more important for you to be in this group with us than for us to beat you up if you don’t get every note right.”

High school senior Javier Duran is in Zahller’s popular Intro to Guitar class.

“He's trying to teach us to stay together,” Duran said, explaining his teacher’s philosophy. “Instead of a class, he wants us to be more like a family.”

Anna Chapman started playing the trumpet with Zahller in the fifth grade. Now she’s a junior playing in the high school band.

“Even though it can be difficult, it's usually like stress relief for me,” she said, explaining how Zahller’s charismatic personality anchors the band community he works so hard to foster. “He’s always probably making some joke that I find hilarious. And it's always kind of like the calm in the storm.”

Several teenagers in a classroom with red walls practice the trumpet together.
Rae Solomon
Anna Chapman plays the trumpet in the Yuma High School band.

But it’s not all about Zahller. Senior Forest Rutledge plays the baritone. He said he’s learned a lot from the way Zahller encourages students to rely on each other.

“He's always helping out everybody,” Rutledge said. “And so you just kind of look up to him, and then you do the same.”

In band class, Zahller reinforces the mutual aid by giving the more advanced students a job: To reach back and help their peers grow.

“You can cherry pick a talented kid,” and surround them with developing musicians, he explained. “I'm going to find five kids that are maybe a little less confident … and I'm going to put them next to a person that they can hear the melody, they can hear what they're supposed to be doing. That's a really safe way for a kid to feel like, ‘OK, I can now I know what it's supposed to sound like.’”

Every band practice Zahller runs through this ritual that demonstrates his group-centric philosophy: As the band practices its scales, he directs each class of musicians to go quiet, one by one, starting with the most experienced musicians: the 12th graders. As each grade level stands down, the remaining band gets a little quieter, a little less confident and a little less skilled.

The whole time, you can just see the freshmen's eyes get bigger and bigger and bigger,” Zahller said. “Like, ‘Oh no, we're next, and we're going to have to play by ourselves.’”

Eventually, it’s just the ninth graders, playing by themselves, unsure of their footing. They start playing the scale, but they miss a few notes. Then a few more. As the tones fall flat, the musicians lose heart, and the musical progression peters out with all the grace of a clumsy faceplant.

Zahller doesn’t scold. Instead, he cheers the freshmen on, reminding them that the whole band is stronger together.

The most important part of the demonstration comes next: Zahller brings everyone back into the fold, reuniting the band to its full strength.

“It wouldn't work if you didn't do this at the end,” he said. “Bring everybody back in together and have everyone feel like, ‘OK. Now listen to us. This is so much bigger and better when everybody's back in.’”

As the more experienced students join back in, the progression soars. Music fills the room. The notes are strong and precise and the students are proud. The communal bonds of the group are strengthened; they’re now ready to make music.

Zahller knows that in a functioning community, people need to feel connected — like they belong somewhere. They need to feel a sense of purpose and an obligation to each other. Every morning, he stands in front of the Yuma High School Band and teaches them how to practice those skills.

He hopes his students take one important lesson away from their time in the band room: if you can be the light for somebody, you have to do that.”

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.