Ken Kraintz Sets The Tone When It Comes To Teaching Music To Northwest Kids

Ask anyone who follows arts education, and they'll tell you that the heart of any program is people. It takes imagination and dedication to keep school choirs, bands and orchestras alive in these times of budget crisis and changing directions.

The luckier districts have someone like Ken Kraintz, who holds the post of fine arts supervisor for the Everett School District and who has his own vision of what kids can achieve. He should know: Kraintz has spent 25 years with the district, working his way up as an itinerant music teacher, high-school band director, choral conductor and vocal-jazz conductor.

``It's amazing what kids can do, and how much they can learn,'' Kraintz says. ``If you really want to see and hear the best, this week is an ideal opportunity.''

This week - specifically, Friday through next Sunday - is the All-Northwest Music Educators' Conference in Seattle, with around 2,000 delegates expected to attend. The cream of the young-musician crop will be on hand to perform: singers and instrumentalists from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska, all selected through audition tapes.

``Last fall, hundreds of applicants sent in tapes for the vocal jazz choir,'' Kraintz explains, ``and of those, 24 vocalists and four instrumentalists were selected. They are going to be good. In fact, I'd say they are going to be great.''

Kraintz is particularly enthusiastic about the vocal jazz

applicants because he has been invited to conduct the choir, in rehearsals (at Lynnwood High School this coming week) and in a Friday concert before festival delegates at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel. The concert also will mark the premieres of six brand-new jazz pieces, commissioned by Kraintz from his colleagues, to be sung by the elite group.

It's unusual for a local figure to be invited to head such a group; more commonly, a conductor from the Midwest or the East Coast would be chosen. Maybe it's because Kraintz has paid so many dues, in so many areas, that he's regarded as an authority figure as convincing as an out-of-town expert.

``I feel honored,'' Kraintz says of his selection. ``It's going to be a real treat to work with these great kids.''

Local educators who respect his work are glad to see Kraintz at the All-Northwest helm.

``Ken is one of the nation's leading people in vocal jazz music,'' says Ken Noreen, the Shorecrest High School music director who has been a longtime arts activist at state and local levels.

``There isn't a high school around that doesn't do his music. It's thrilling to see one of our own people recognized by letting him do this, and he certainly deserves the honor.''

After polishing his composing credentials with such teachers as Paul Creston (with whom Kraintz studied at Central Washington University), Kraintz has turned his talents to whichever group he directed. Usually he composes in response to a lack of available repertoire - which is why he and vocal jazz colleague Frank DeMiero have formed their own music publishing company, Sound Music Publications.

DeMiero, the music program manager for the Edmonds School District and one of the country's leading vocal jazz authorities, also collaborates with Kraintz in songwriting.

``Frank is a word man, as most Italians are,'' jokes Kraintz, ``and I do the music and arranging.'' Kraintz also writes his own lyrics to some songs, and continues to compose music for such other ensembles as concert band.

At least partly because of their efforts, displayed in performances by DeMiero's nationally known ``Soundsation'' jazz choirs in Edmonds, the Northwest has emerged as one of the country's centers for vocal jazz.

``Kids today want music more sophisticated than the Top 40,'' Kraintz believes. ``Good vocal jazz improves their pitch ability, their ability to listen and to identify notes in complex tone clusters. They can transfer these skills back to the concert choir and do very well in traditional classical music.

``The more advanced kids seem to enjoy all musical styles, including the stuff that splits your head in half. In programs such as this All-Northwest choir, you see some really outstanding, very well-rounded students. It's a joy and a privilege to work with them.''

Kraintz and his hard-working peers often have to deal with restrictive school schedules that put band and chorus practice in the pre-dawn hours, before the regular school curriculum, in addition to the constant threat of budget cuts that put music programs in jeopardy.

What makes it all worthwhile, Kraintz says, is the kids. And with recent news published by the Music Educators National Conference, showing that high-school SAT scores rise proportionally to the number of arts courses students have taken, there's little doubt that Kraintz is right when he says, ``We see the best. That is a constant inspiration.''