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Take That, von Trapps

By Joanne Tobias

Bob and Julie Athayde did not set out to create a household of musical prodigies; it happened by osmosis. With Bob, director of Stanley Middle School’s music department, constantly playing trumpet and piano, and Julie teaching violin at home, the Athayde kids grew up immersed in complex melodies.

Now that Juliana, 27, Gabrielle, 22, Kyle, 20, and Eliana, 17, are leaving the Athayde family home in Orinda for the world beyond, the Athayde name is popping up in concert halls and competitive festivals across the United States, Europe, and Asia.

The melody-making started with Juliana. By the time she was a year and a half, Bob and Julie gave up trying to pry the violin out of the toddler’s little hands. “There were 30 students coming through each week,” says Bob. “And, she figured everybody plays a violin. So, she wanted to do it.”

Awarded her own miniature instrument, Juliana started Suzuki lessons (a nurturing method with no timetables) and thrived.

Three years ago, at age 24, she became one of the nation’s youngest concertmasters ever at the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. “She’s responsible for giving cues,” says Bob. “Her body language tells the rest of the orchestra what to do.”

Like Juliana, the other kids were irresistibly drawn to instruments—first violin, then piano, then woodwinds, percussion, and bass. This sounds like an ambitious progression, but the momentum came from the children.

“You’ll read up on kids who’re really good, but they’ve become a little mean-spirited because they didn’t want to do this,” says Bob. “So, we’ve had to temper it, with pushing when we needed to, backing off when we should. But, you do need to practice consistently with kids when they’re little. And, that’s the key.”

Whereas most kids know they have to finish their vegetables before getting dessert, Eliana recalls a different set of priorities in the Athayde household. “I remember we had a rule that we couldn’t start a second instrument until a certain age. And, we couldn’t start a third instrument until fourth grade,” says Eliana, who was recently named Outstanding Musician in the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. The fourth grade came and went. Today, in addition to being an award-winning string bass player, she plays sax, piano, guitar, and violin.

These polyglots of the music world soon discovered that, as with language, each new instrument is easier to pick up than the last. Most of the kids contented themselves with playing three or four instruments. Kyle was the exception. “He plays anything he picks up,” says Eliana. “He’s now at Juilliard studying composition.”

In the Athayde household, there was no shortage of impromptu jam sessions. During those rare evenings when the whole family was at home, music became the after-dinner entertainment. Who played what depended on whether it was a classical or jazz night. “It might be Gabrielle on bass, myself on the piano, and Kyle on the vibraphone,” says Bob.

Kyle has sat in with his dad not only in the living room but out on the town at professional gigs, and also on Bob’s latest jazz CD, A Second Look. Choosing Kyle to lay down some tracks wasn’t about nepotism. By that time, Kyle’s work on trumpet and vibes had received nine Down Beat magazine Outstanding Soloist Awards—and he’s since won two more.

This summer, Eliana will perform across Europe with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. If she passes through Switzerland, she might cross paths with her sister Gabrielle, one of two cellists accepted to the Lucerne Festival.

Like their musical offspring, Bob and Julie travel far and often to answer music’s siren call. From leading workshops in Hawaii to performing in Alaska, the couple traipse across the nation, instruments in tow. Yet, luckily for Contra Costa, Bob remains firmly rooted in the local schools.

As a teacher at Stanley, Bob breathes music into the lives of more than 300 kids a year. Whether teaching band classes, leading student jazz combos, or entering kids into competitions, he devotes himself to sharing music with students. “If a kid can be sparked, then I’m going to find a way to spark him,” says Bob, winner of numerous music educator awards.

Thanks to his own touring and teaching schedule, Bob regularly interacts with an impressive array of world-renowned musicians and conductors. A few times a month, Bob lures them into the classroom to play for and with his students. “When you play with better players, you play better,” he says. “If you play with the best players in the world, it’s so good that it’s almost a dream.”

Seeking yet more of that musical state of bliss, the young Athaydes are actualizing their own dreams with their trombones and trumpets, their clarinets, violins, and string basses. Entering the family’s home feels like walking into a music hall, even when the youngsters are off traveling. A set of drums, a grand piano, and a trumpet have laid claim to the dining room.

“If our kids were athletic, we’d all be rich,” says Julie, looking fondly at the violins, guitars, and amps lining the walls. “But instead, they’re musical, so they’re happy.”


Published: Diablo, July 2008

Author bio: Based in Oakland, Joanne Tobias’ work appears in Oakland Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and online magazines such as Authentic San Francisco and F-Stop.

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