Saxophone success: John McCoy is the NAU Concerto winner

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Senior musical education and sax performance major John McCoy was first introduced to the saxophone in the third grade through a school program designed to introduce music to kids.

“I just remember seeing all these instruments,” McCoy said. “I saw this gold thing that looked pretty cool so I was like, ‘I want to play that.’”

Since then, the “gold thing” has gone on to become a major factor in McCoy’s life; he played the saxophone all through middle school and high school. McCoy has played the alto, tenor and soprano sax, and he currently holds the top spot for alto saxes in the Northern Arizona University (NAU) wind symphony.

The past few years at NAU have greatly expanded McCoy’s horizons and ability to reach new heights and possibilities. The most recent and greatest accomplishment he has achieved so far was winning this year’s NAU Concerto Competition. A concerto is a musical composition broken into three parts or movements; a solo instrument — like the saxophone — is accompanied by an orchestra, or a piano in McCoy’s case. McCoy also had to memorize the piece as opposed to using sheet music.

“I was nervous up until two weeks before the preliminary round,” McCoy said. “All of a sudden, I just decided there is no reason I should be nervous; I’m just doing this because I want to, because it is what I love to do.”

The Concerto McCoy performed was Concertino da Camera by Jacques Ibert, a French piece from 1935, which McCoy describes as a staple of the classical saxophone. The competition had 16 other contestants involved with a preliminary round and a final round. The final round was held in Ardrey Auditorium.

“It’s just piano and saxophone in this huge auditorium, so it was interesting getting used to the acoustics,” McCoy said. “Eventually, it just came down to, ‘I’m just going to play.’ I didn’t even wait for the results; I went to go get some dinner with some friends.”

After returning from dinner, McCoy was informed he and Carolyn Snyder, a violist, had won the competition.

For McCoy, the real enjoyment comes from the saxophone itself.

“It is such an expressive instrument, in terms of tone color and just raw emotion behind it,” McCoy said. “You can easily convey what you are feeling inside of you when you are playing a concerto, or any piece for that matter. I think it is the instrument that sounds most like the human voice. It is an instrument you can play in any genre; there are people who play it in metal bands. The cool thing is it all kind of stemmed from classical music.”

While McCoy started his career in jazz, he has since made the switch to classical as his preferred field. This is partially due to the communication he has had with NAU alumni and famous sax player Dannel Espanoza, who convinced him to look into classical.

After NAU, McCoy plans to attend graduate school at Florida State University. From there, he wishes to someday teach the saxophone while continuing to perform. McCoy’s summer is going to involve studying with the Rascher Saxophone Quartet in Germany and studying with the Mana Sax Quartet, which Espanoza is a member of, in Phoenix and Maryland.

All this studying through quartets and NAU’s unique music education program can be a heavy weight at times for McCoy. It can also get lonely.

“You are spending a lot of time practicing, honing your craft, listening to music,” McCoy said. “It’s kind of a little life-consuming, but at the same time, it’s rewarding. I have been performing in so many concerts this past year. I think I was learning 12 pieces this year. Typically, you only learn 4 or 5.”

Before graduating this semester, McCoy will be performing his winning concerto — Snyder will be as well — with a full orchestra. It will be on May 5 at 3 p.m. in Ardrey Auditorium. The NAU Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra will also be performing. As he approaches the stage one last time as an NAU student, McCoy will play his highest attending performance as a solo. For him, the real joy will be representing the school that has helped him blossom into what hopefully will be a celebrated saxophonist.

“I personally enjoy it because I think NAU is a very top quality school, especially for music,” McCoy said. “The biggest thing is just making everybody proud at that point, no matter what we do and no matter what we’re playing, just making sure that you are representing NAU at all times.”



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