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Credit: Eliud Vargas

For College freshman Josh Gardos, playing jazz music was an integral part of his life even before he came to Penn. Now, as a student in the course Music 007, Gardos is able to continue his love of playing jazz music as a member of one of Penn's student ensembles.

Gardos is a member of the Jazz Combos, one of the 13 student ensembles sponsored by Penn's music department. All Penn students, faculty, staff, and community members can audition to join one of the diverse musical groups, which range from the jazz group to the Symphony Orchestra and the Arab Music Ensemble. Students — even those not pursuing a music degree — can join any of the ensembles and choose to take the course for credit.

“Jazz was an important part of my life before college, and I wanted to continue playing the music I enjoy,” Gardos said. “My combo provides me with a break from the stresses of life here and enables me to express myself in a way I don’t think I could otherwise.”

Matthew Clayton, Penn Music lecturer and director of the Jazz Combos, said students in the ensembles “get the best of both worlds."

"[They have] an opportunity to make their artistic passion a part of their official curriculum and also a chance to learn from world-class instructors who themselves are virtuoso performers,” Clayton wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Under the direction of conductors, performers, and other local professionals, student musicians generally rehearse once or twice a week on campus. The rehearsals culminate in live performances at the end of the semester. 

Director of Performance Michael Ketner, who leads the Penn Wind Ensemble and oversees the entire program, said ensembles are designed to be accessible to the entire Penn community. While the ensembles require auditions, Ketner said the staff is willing to work with students to help them get involved — even if it means trying something new.

“We try to find a place for everybody, regardless of your background or your ability level,” Ketner added. “If you want to perform, the chances are we have a place for you to fit in.”

Credit: Eliud Vargas

To meet growing demand, many ensembles have multiple divisions. Some, such as the Samba Ensemble, place musicians into different sections based on experience. The Jazz Combos, however, break 40 students into seven different bands.

College freshman David DeVaro did not choose to take the ensemble course for credit, but he said he still gained valuable experience as a pianist for one of Clayton's combos.

“It’s been a dream come true,” DeVaro said. “There’s always more to learn or explore in music, which comes from playing with others. The program is filled with really amazing people to do that with.”

College senior Rendy Fernandez, a four-year member of the Wind Ensemble, agreed.

“Coming from a performing-arts high school, I really appreciate the environment here in that it’s very low pressure," Fernandez said. "I can tell everyone is here to support you." 

Ketner said he is excited to see how the Penn ensemble program continues to grow. 

“We’ve really opened this up to the entire University community,” he said. “No matter what students want to do, we hope that they can see the benefit of the arts to society and continue to want to be a part of them in some way.”