AHS grad Nate Conrad Came Home to Lead His Old Band
Nate Conrad was preparing to fly to Europe where he would perform for the third time since entering college when the call came to go back home.
“Four or five people from Atascadero called me and said, ‘When are you going to get your teaching credential?’” said Conrad, who was studying at California State University, East Bay at the time. “Because the job just opened up.”
The Job: director of the high school band.
Seven years earlier, Conrad had performed with that band as a student. Suddenly, he had an opportunity to return to Atascadero as an educator.
Remember that 70s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter?” Like that, but without a laugh track.
Now, 12 years after his return, Conrad is still leading that band, which will experience a significant change this year when it skips marching competitions to focus on musicianship and local events.
“This is pretty awesome,” he said, sitting in a temporary instrument storage space while the band room undergoes renovation. “And I’m really happy doing what I’m doing where I’m doing it.”
Conrad moved to Atascadero at the age of four with a family of musicians.
“We were always singing and making music in the house growing up,” he said.
His father, an Episcopal priest, enjoyed classical music and hymns, so that dominated — but didn’t necessarily dictate Conrad’s earliest music selections.
“I got the first Weezer album and the first Green Day album,” he said.
But during his sophomore year, his parents bought him some music for Christmas — Count Basie and J.J. Johnson — and he was hooked on jazz.
“It probably took me twice as long to do my homework as any other student,” he said. “Because I had those CDs on all the time, and I would space out and listen to music.”
Conrad began playing trombone one day simply because the other available instruments — a trumpet and a clarinet — were in worse condition.
“In a typical musician way, I love that it’s impossibly hard to play,” he said of the trombone. “My youngest brother is a professional saxophone player, and every time I see him play, I’m like, man — that’s such a smarter way to go.”
After high school, Conrad started his studies at Cuesta College, had a brief stop at Cal Poly, then headed to Hayward, where he found more opportunities to perform and compose. He would have continued to perform in the Bay Area had he not returned to that familiar place.
“It was familiar in a really good sense,” he said. “The weird part was talking to the teachers.”
A few of the teachers he’d distanced himself from as a student suddenly appeared much differently once he got to know them as colleagues.
“It turns out they were phenomenal people,” he said with a laugh.
While competing has long been an element of the marching band, this year, Conrad and the administration decided to back off from competition. For one thing, Conrad said, the school always had to travel long distances to compete against much bigger schools. And competing on the road, he added, just isn’t as rewarding as performing at community events or home football games.
“When the stands are full, it’s close to 2,000 people,” he said. “So over the course of five home games, we’re playing for close to 10,000 people.”
By skipping competitions, he said, he can focus on making students better musicians, which will ultimately help those who want to pursue music further.
And serious musicians will want to play serious music, which is why this year’s catalog includes several Steely Dan numbers.
“A lot of them don’t know Steely Dan,” Conrad said. “But by the end of the year, they’re going to be checking out Steely Dan and other bands from that era and similar styles, so
that’s a win.”