INWOOD, Iowa | Drew Balta stepped into the practice room before the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival at Le Mars Community High School one year ago. He didn't like what he saw from his lead drummer, Katie Hess.
"It looked to me like she was visibly shaken, being overcome by nerves," said Balta. "I was nervous for her that day because I knew how hard she worked. I was afraid her nerves would take away all her hard work."
It didn't happen. The lights came on as the music began. And Hess kept the beat, pushing the band, then pulling back when needed. The jazz musicians from West Lyon, competing in just their second Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival, earned a berth that day in the Iowa Jazz Championships. The upstart program then surprised nearly everyone on the high school jazz scene with a second-place finish at IJC, second only to champion South Central Calhoun, a traditional power in this activity.
"Katie was a different person when the lights came on," Balta said of Hess, a senior. "She owned her performance. She drove the band."
Katie Hess and her West Lyon jazz musicians take the stage again this week, performing on Tuesday in the 2017 Iowa Jazz Championships at Iowa State University. West Lyon is among several Northwest Iowa bands vying for a state championship, a title won in recent years by North, South O'Brien, Okoboji, South Central Calhoun.
Hess remains excited about the event, but cautions against deeming the IJC trip a success only if the band returns to Lyon County with a trophy.
"Our goal this year is to put our best show out there," she said. "We're competing against ourselves. We're trying to do better than the last time we performed."
The last time was pretty decent; West Lyon claimed the title at the 2017 Northwest Iowa District Jazz Band Festival, held in late February at Le Mars Community High School. In fact, Balta's group has won each contest it entered this season. Hess earned Outstanding Soloist accolades at the Augustana Jazz Festival in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Balta has watched his lead drummer undergo a transformation of sorts during his tenure at West Lyon.
"Katie was very, very shy as a sophomore," Balta said of his first year at the school. "She lacked self-confidence. We have seen that just explode over the past two years. You want that person to be confident."
As a sophomore, Balta said he had to tip-toe around constructive criticism when it came to Hess, who also participates in vocal jazz, choir and the school's plays and musicals.
"Her first year there was a lot of, 'I don't think I can do what you're asking me to do,'" he recalled.
Balta's instruction, coupled with percussion sessions under Greg Forney, of Okoboji, Iowa, and Jason Raether, of Sioux Falls, have helped Hess take her game to the next level. Well that, and lots of hard work. Hess often practices during the last class period of the day, a time when she has study hall.
"I wasn't as confident two years ago," she remarked. "I've learned now that nerves aren't needed. You just go out and do what you do."
Hess said repeated rehearsal efforts help make a difference, as does listening to jazz music, something clinicians often challenge student musicians to do during their high school days.
Hess said she comes by her musical talent honestly, as her mother played in the band, as did two uncles. One grandmother even taught music for a time at West Lyon.
West Lyon's set opens with "Switch In Time," by Count Basie, then transitions to "Angel Eyes," an arrangement by Allan Horney. The finish is "Afro Blue" by Mongo Santamaria.
No matter how the band does on Tuesday, Hess said she'd like to extend her career on the drums. The future University of Northern Iowa student isn't sure what she'll select as a major. She is pretty confident, though, that she'll find a place in one of UNI's band activities.