Washburn might expose his students to music’s lofty heights, but he expects hard work in return. Each year the ensemble and jazz bands learn an impressive eighty to one hundred tunes, ranging from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” to Brazilian bossa nova. Students bring in pop hits, and Washburn composes original numbers to hone particular skills, such as mastering the perfect “twang” on guitar. He keeps a chart of who plays what to ensure everybody gets equal stage time. Every April, band members head to Honolulu for Jazz Appreciation Month. They’ve opened for the Royal Hawaiian Band at ‘Iolani Palace and played at the Shriners Children’s Hospital, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and Ala Moana Center.
Aside from the shriek of the school bell, the Honoka‘a band room could be a professional studio. Upcoming gigs are scrawled on the chalkboard. Luggage tags hang from the handles of black instrument cases, evidence of recent off-island tours. And the tidy stack of CDs on the teacher’s desk? Those are class recordings, available for a donation of $10. “I try to teach professional etiquette,” says Washburn. “I expect students to be on time, dressed right and ready to change everything at the last minute.”
“There’s no program like it in the state,” says Hiraoka, who went on to major in music at the University of Hawai‘i. “Mr. Washburn really knows how to educate, how to think out of the box.”
Maelan Abran, one of Hiraoka’s classmates, is doing just that. Her first album, A Little Closer (which Hiraoka helped produce) has gotten play on stations in Hawai‘i, Las Vegas and Tahiti; its original tracks feature a novel blend of reggae, Jawaiian and jazz.
The first time the raven-haired vocalist sang in front of the class, she remembers, she felt so embarrassed she ran into the hall and burst into tears. Washburn came out and asked her, “Do you really want to do this? Because if you do, it will get better with practice.” He was right. Abran spent every free minute in the band room, rehearsing and eventually mentoring other students. She got her first gig when she was 21 and has been singing professionally ever since.
“I owe a lot to Mr. Washburn,” she says, a common sentiment among the teacher’s alumni. Another student, Amy Mills, was painfully shy, with a voice that was sweet but far too quiet for anyone to take notice —until the talent show during her senior year, when she stunned her classmates with a chandelier-shaking performance of “I Will Always Love You.” After graduation she worked as a grocery clerk. Every so often Washburn would nudge her about pursuing music. One day she took his advice and left to study opera in New York City. She is now an accomplished soprano.