Cover Story - May 12, 2010

Frank Moura hands over the baton

Legendary jazz band director wraps up 39 years as a music teacher at M-A

by Michael Abramson

After 39 years as the director of the Menlo-Atherton High School Jazz Band and a music teacher, Frank Moura will retire in June, a legend in the view of many of his students, colleagues and fans.

During those years, the bands, which frequently toured in the United States and abroad, won more than 150 awards, and about 30 of the band members went on to become professional musicians, he says.

Frank Moura, known to most simply as Frank, was born and raised in nearby San Leandro. He took up the trombone at age 6 and was playing with local symphony orchestras by the time he was 12.

After graduating from San Francisco State University in 1968, he decided to take the position of band director at Sequoia High School in 1968. Three years later, he moved over to Menlo-Atherton, where he has been teaching ever since.

This year, that long tenure is coming to an end. "Back in 1968, when I started, I said, man, if I ever make it to 65 years old I'm going out," he says. "I don't think it's fair to the kids."

Mr. Moura's successor should be announced soon, he says.

Making it fun

By all accounts, he has his own distinctive approach in the classroom, both fun and serious, that results in quality musicians while still allowing him to relate to students as more than just their teacher.

"I try to make it fun for them, but also make it feel like a family," he says. "We're trying to make a whole from a bunch of different parts."

Explaining how he pulled all of those parts together, he talks of the need "to get the images in their heads of the sounds that I want."

He uses, he says, "a lot of very silly stories or strange sayings or motions to get them to feel what the piece is really about — because music involves the whole body."

This out-of-the-box style of teaching, students say, is part of what has kept the band strong for so many years and has allowed Mr. Moura to connect so well with generations of M-A students.

"Frank isn't so much a teacher as he is an experience," says junior saxophone player Jake Lindquist.

Another band member, junior drummer Sam Hausman, praises Frank as "a vault of knowledge and experience," a man who "off the tip of his tongue can call back specific songs played on specific stages 35 years ago."

There have been plenty of stages.

Under his leadership, the M-A jazz band has traveled to local venues such as Clovis and Reno; to tropical locales such as Hawaii; to prestigious European events such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland, and the Vienna Jazz Festival in Austria; and to the Czech Republic and France.

In 39 years, it is easy to lose track of awards, but Mr. Moura estimates the band has won at least 150 of them, most recently a first-place finish at the Reno Jazz Festival in April.

While he estimates that at least 30 professional musicians have come out of M-A during his tenure, that isn't the point of his class, he says. "I don't try to raise music majors. I try to make kids become a knowledgeable music audience."

The impressions he left on his students have been lasting.

"Playing in Frank's jazz band was easily the highlight of my high school career," says Andrew Smith, a 2006 M-A graduate and a drummer in the jazz band for three years. "I thought of Frank not only as a talented musician and band director, but as a friend and a mentor."

In looking back, Mr. Moura confirms this emphasis on personal, as well as musical, growth: "We've had great bands, and not so great bands, and mediocre bands, but really, it's more about the people."

After retiring, Frank plans to travel and play music with his wife, things he has had little time for with his commitment to the M-A jazz band. He plans on playing trombone in local bands, and they might play in musicals, he says.

He will also spend time down at Oak Grove High School in San Jose, helping his son, who is a music teacher there, lead his own jazz band.

If you somehow have not managed to catch a performance by the M-A jazz band under Mr. Moura's tutelage, it is not too late. On May 19 the jazz band will play a farewell concert in the M-A performing arts center, and on June 11, the band will perform at the Nativity Carnival in Menlo Park. The May 19 event starts at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Mr. Moura will leave a proud and lasting legacy at M-A, say his students. His laid-back demeanor and quirky humor have endeared him to many.

Andrew Smith, the 2006 grad, describes him as "one of those guys who has some type of charm and charisma you cannot find anywhere else."

He will be fondly remembered, say students and colleagues, as a teacher, director, friend, mentor, performer, leader, and Menlo Park staple for the last 40 years.

About the author: Michael Abramson of Atherton is a junior at Menlo-Atherton High School and writes for the M-A Bear News.


Posted by Christine Martens, a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on May 17, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Frank Moura has been a tremendous asset to M-A. He demonstrates so much of why arts must always be part of an educational curriculum. He has educated "whole people" well beyond the band room. Thanks to Frank, many kids (now adults) have enjoyed both listening and making music. Let's hope that we as a community can continue to support music and other arts education.

Posted by Paul Naas, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 29, 2010 at 9:58 am

There are teachers you barely remember, and teachers that you'll never forget. Frank is definitely the latter. The community has been fortunate to have him as an M-A staple for nearly 40 years, and I count myself fortunate to have been his student. We'll miss you Frank, and thank you.

Posted by Mr. B, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 18, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Thinking out of the box.
Connecting to the whole body.
Making it fun. Personal as
well as musical growth.
All signs of a great teacher.

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