Jaimie Hall conducts an advanced band rehearsal at Straub Middle School on Wednesday, May 25. Hall was named the district's 2022 music teacher of the year (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

West Salem High School is known for its decorated school band - which recently took home second place in a statewide competition among the Oregon’slargest high schools.

Many of those winning musicians got their start in Jaimie Hall’s windowless classroom in Straub Middle School, where the sound of French horns working out the kinks in Darth Vader’s theme music was audible during a recent advanced band class.

Though middle school bands don’t always get the same public recognition as their high school counterparts, Hall said it’s the ideal age to teach music.

“They're fearless. You can challenge them to do things and they're not afraid of it because they don't know anything's hard. So if you don't tell them it's hard, they never figure it out until somebody tells them later,” he said.

Hall was recognized earlier this month as the Salem-Keizer School District’s music educator of the year, an honor given annually by the Oregon Symphony in Salem following a nomination, with advisory committee members from the symphony reviewing finalists in class.

He’s taught in the district for 23 years and been at Straub since the school opened in 2011.

Principal Denny McCarthy, who’s in his third year at Straub, described Hall as an “institution” who’s known both for challenging students with high standards and supporting them to reach them.

“It’s just so fun to watch him bring out the very best in kids,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said it’s particularly valuable for the band when Hall leads them with questions, challenging them to reflect on their own performance.

During a rehearsal for the advanced band’s approaching spring concert, Hall repeatedly stopped his students to ask about improvements to their performance.

“What happens at 57 that you’re not doing?” he asked, gesturing to the measure in his score. 

“It gets the kids to be critical thinkers about their playing,” McCarthy said. “That helps them get better.”

Hall began his life as a musician playing trumpet and credits his eighth grade band teacher for his chosen career path.

“He kind of captured me at a point in my life when I needed capturing,” Hall said. “My parents were splitting up and he kind of just filled that void with music and leadership, lots of things I needed, support and focus. He got me on track because I could be a problem child.”

After high school, Hall moved from his native Georgia to California to continue studying trumpet. The former music director for Salem-Keizer reached out and asked him to interview for a job. Hall made the trip in July and was hooked by Salem’s nice weather and how it stayed light late into the summer night. He’s been here since.

Hall finds teaching music rewarding because, by teaching band for neighboring elementary schools, he gets to work with the same students from fifth grade until eighth. 

“I see this interesting little being in fifth grade and by the time they’re heading to high school, I can see who’s gonna get up and run the world,” he said. ”It’s phenomenal, the relationships. It’s the best part of this whole thing.”

Hall has at times become a surrogate parent for some, recently attending an award presentation for one of his band students whose parents have never come to his concerts.

After a demanding season, his advanced students are preparing for their spring concert on June 7, rehearsing American composer Carl Strommen’s “Cumberland Cross” and a medley of movie score favorites from John Williams.

“I’ve pushed and pushed and pushed all year, and now it’s time to pull back and have fun,” he said of the selections.

Hall blends humor with an intense focus on the music, asking students to run a several-measure section multiple times until they’ve balanced the brass and woodwind voices or correctly crescendoed to capture the spirit of the piece.

“Man, Darth Vader just, like, fell on his forehead,” he remarked as the brass section’s playing got a bit muddy during a transition section. After a few more run-throughs, the piece was sounding much cleaner.

Even when he’s in his office, he can ask a student to run warm-ups without issue.

“They knew exactly what to do. The kid knew exactly what to do and that's evidence of strong process, strong leadership, strong guidance that when he's not there, that still works,” said Stephen Lytle, the district’s music and drama coordinator, observing a recent class.

Hall said he was honored to receive the award, but wanted the recognition to go to his students.

“I brought the award in this week and showed my kids. I said, ‘I want you guys to know this is ours, not mine,’” he recalled. “Because the reason I got recognition is because of what they do, how well they're doing it.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!