by Gloria Diaz
photography by Jason Cooper

They play jazz standards, joke, laugh and learn before most people have even risen from bed. Mark Capablo leads the 6 a.m. Bonita High School Jazz Ensemble, an award-winning band that continues to be one of the most distinguished programs in the United States. / photo by Jason Cooper

They play jazz standards, joke, laugh and learn before most people have even risen from bed. Mark Capablo leads the 6 a.m. Bonita High School Jazz Ensemble, an award-winning band that continues to be one of the most distinguished programs in the United States. / photo by Jason Cooper

Bonita High School plays a big band sound like no other. That sound is the one of an award-winning marching band, jazz band and orchestra. For the eighth consecutive year, Mark Capablo has been the man behind the sound. Under Capablo’s direction, the Bonita High band program has appeared on the music competition radar. Bonita’s band has earned prestigious accolades, including awards from the Tournament of Champions, the largest high school band competition, where it took home most of the major awards. At this year’s competition, the band captured the day show competition.

“My philosophy is that I try to make kids motivated to experience music by doing it well,” says Capablo. “I want them to get excited.” Capablo, 42, not only leads the high school musical programs, but he also heads the Ramona Middle School programs. His daily schedule is hectic and eclectic. At 6:30 a.m., zero period, he arrives at Bonita for jazz band practice and remains there for the first half of the day. Following, he has 10 minutes to get to Ramona for his next class. There, Capablo teaches three music classes: winds, symphonic band and the sixth-grade band during the afternoon. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, he returns to Bonita for after school band practice from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. “I love it,” says Capablo. “I like to see kids get excited when they make progress.”

While other high school teachers prefer to be addressed by their last name, Capablo would much rather be called Mr. C. “I let them call me Mr. C. because it is a lot easier than saying my name,” he jokes. It is his loose coupling style of teaching that brings the best out of his students and motivates them to excel. On a typical band practice day, the students bring out their instruments from the old wooden cupboards and tune their instruments while Capablo sits in his office. A chaos of musical notes fill the room as 20 different instruments play 20 different notes at once. A few students talk to him in his office about band-related issues. “They know when I am serious, but we joke around a lot, and I yell at them a lot too. It is a love-hate thing, but they probably hate me,” he laughs.

Through a window, he looks out into the room where the noise of instruments originates. Papers are scattered across his desk, with only a small corner salvaged for the phone. As he finds time to pause, Capablo says that 20 years ago, teaching high school band was not what he had in mind as a performance major from 1982-1987 at California State University, Northridge. While playing in the Tim Lamarca Big Band, fellow member Robin Snyder told Capablo that Bonita High was looking for a band teacher. Capablo applied with Snyder’s recommendation and was hired.

Finally, the time has come to begin the jazz band class. Capablo emerges from his office, and the random practice noise subsides. He stands beside the piano and plainly gives the command “scales.” With one word, the students know it is time to play. The guitar, piano, xylophone, saxophones, trombones, trumpets and drums all begin to practice the scale routine, note by note.

Capablo brings out his own trumpet and begins to rehearse with the band. He has played the trumpet for 30 years and is also skilled in all the wind instruments, piano and the drums. “The trumpet is my main instrument. I wouldn’t think of playing the piano or the drums professionally,” he says.

Capablo taps his right foot to start off the beat. Snapping his fingers and counting 1- 2, 1-2 -3, the band fires up with “North Texas Warm-Up.” He listens attentively while conducting. He finally hears a flaw and holds out his hand in a fist; the band stops and receives instruction. “It’s not long. It needs to be long, not choppy,” he explains. “If it is not long, it doesn’t sound hip. Everyone needs to articulate the same sound.” He points to the saxophone players sitting in the first row and shows them how bar 16 is supposed to sound. They play; then he plays. Capablo continues this procedure with the trumpets and the trombones. Over and over, they play the bar until it sounds right. Finally, they have it; it’s perfect. Now they can play the entire piece. “He will let you know if you are doing something wrong,” says Brian Hensputter, junior and jazz band drummer. He is also a member of the marching and concert bands. since his freshman year. “When we are critiqued at competitions, the judges say that we have a good director,” he adds. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s turned the program into one of the best in California,” says Bonita High sophomore Rami Haschache, who has known Capablo since he was a fourth grader at La Verne Heights Elementary. There, Haschache joined the band directed by Capablo. “It’s his devotion to the band, and how much he cares about it that makes us care about it too,” says Haschache. “He’s more like a friend than a teacher.”

Some stand, some sit, but they all attentively follow their music sheets. They seem to have some trouble starting the next piece.

“You’ve got to be ready to go. You’ve got to lock into a groove right away,” he tells them. “The Alta Loma group messed up this part.” Bonita High competes against Alta Loma, but the school that Capablo thinks is the toughest competition is South Hills High School in West Covina. But he notes that the competition changes every year. “We try to play our best. If we can do that, then we have reached our goal,” says Capablo. During the practice, he works with the horns for 10 minutes to perfect the introduction. It seems tedious, but as he exclaims, “Every detail has to be perfect if we want to compete with the ‘big boys.”

Bonita senior and jazz band guitarist Alicia Koch has known Capablo for five years, starting as an eighth grader at Ramona Middle School. She wanted to go to a high school specializing in performing arts but stayed at Bonita because she knew Capablo “wanted it to be the best. He is very motivated to do good; that is what gets a lot of people motivated. It’s his attitude that gets us coming back.”

“Before he started here, marching band was a small program. He has built it up to what it is today,” says BHS Principal Robert Ketterling. “Jazz band has always been strong, and he has kept that going.” Now that Capablo has brought Bonita High out of the shadows, he shares his talent and dedication with the music program at Ramona Middle School. “Mark has increased the participation in the music program. The relationship with the students has been very positive. The kids work well with him,” says Carl Davis, Ramona Middle School assistant principal.

When the day is over, Capablo drives home to Rancho Cucamonga, where Robin, his wife of 17 years, his son Vincent and daughter Daphne welcome him. “Keeping busy is part of my personality. I try to keep myself busy,” he says. As for the future of the band program, Capablo says he wants to continue what they have been doing. “I feel like we still have more to achieve, and we are working toward that.”