Ketchikan High School senior Sandra Johnston

Ketchikan High School senior Sandra Johnston stands under snowfall on Tuesday at Bar Harbor South. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Sandra Johnston, a Ketchikan High School senior, has spent all four years of her high school career making music, and doesn't plan to stop learning more about her passion after graduation.

Johnston is a four-year member of both the Kayhi jazz and pep bands. Her music education began when she joined her elementary school band, and now in her last year at Kayhi, she plays the alto saxophone on the jazz band and serves as the pep band leader. She also is a co-captain of the school academic decathlon team this year.

The Daily News recently spoke with Johnston during a phone interview as part of an effort to highlight local student musicians participating in a range of music education programs.

Johnston spoke about how she got her start in music, her fondest memories of Kayhi's music program and her future plans in the field of music.

"I started having a interest in music around sixth grade and I started playing alto (saxophone) right then and there in sixth grade," Johnston told the Daily News. "Well, at first, I started out with a clarinet, but there were so many clarinets in the band that I wanted to try something new and interesting. So I picked alto."

She continued to grow her skills through middle school, which ultimately provided a smooth transition to high school band.

"My eighth grade year, they offered a jazz band, (in) which I got introduced to jazz, fell in love with it," she said. "We actually played on the docks for the tourists in eighth grade, and then I, you know, kind of fell in love with jazz and was like, 'Oh, there's one in high school, I'll go for that one.'"

The fact that Johnston made it into Kayhi's jazz band her freshman year is a little unusual.

"Because normally jazz, you have to put in an audition, and to get into a jazz band is an opportunity and accomplishment in and of itself," she said.

She found a place as the second alto, and "every moment, I just loved playing jazz," Johnston said.

She attributed her continued musical motivation to the variety of songs and education she's exposed to at school.

"Well, throughout my education, not only do we play classical songs,  ... but we also play largely pop songs, and hearing those songs on the internet and hearing you play it, kind of connects you more to the music you listen to," Johnston explained.

Compared to pep band, "Jazz band offers more swing tunes, more tunes that got you interested in grooving while you're playing," Johnston noted.

The student recalled that in a recent jazz band session, she learned the song "Bewitched," which she described as an older song.

Despite that, Johnston recognized the tune outside of class — "we were watching 'The Muppets' one night, and that song sure (enough) came up in 'The Muppets Show,'" Johnston recalled. "And I was like, 'Hey I know that.'"

And in her role as pep band leader, Johnston steers the group. Her main role is to "basically direct what songs we do in pep band."

Johnston said that balancing school and her band commitments has been particularly difficult in the face of COVID-19.

"It was hard, especially with the whole COVID thing that hit, playing band and simultaneously doing school all while on lockdown," Johnston said. "Basically, we couldn't play music while we were at home, so we had to rely on practicing at home and then coming to school, hoping that we can play together for the concerts."

Reflecting on her four years of Kayhi music, Johnston identified a couple of memorable moments, both from her freshman year.

"I think my most outstanding memory was in freshman year of pep band, where it was a ... quarter break and the drummer walked out in the middle of the gym floor, two other people turned him upside down, and he started playing drum songs upside down."

She also reflected on the jazz festival held in Sitka during her freshman year.

"It was a great opportunity to see professionals and amateurs alike playing on one stage, going off of each other, all playing jazz, playing one language, with all sorts of talent, all sorts of generations, all coming to one place," Johnston reflected.

After she graduates with the Kayhi Class of 2022 in the spring, Johnston said that she is "one hundred percent" going to minor in music or participate in a college marching band.

"I'm really hoping to stay connected to music," Johnston explained. "Music players, the surrounding music systems, listening to other small cabarets play or maybe going to a jazz festival. Stuff like that, just to stay involved."