PAULLINA, Iowa | I've always been a bit cavalier in telling people how much I enjoy my job, a sentiment that comes with a tongue-in-cheek remark: "It's better than digging ditches."

On Friday, I met ditch digger Brian Cole, director of bands at South O'Brien High School in Paullina. Cole, 36, received a pink slip a few years ago while teaching music in the West Delaware Community School District in his hometown, Manchester, Iowa.

The reduction in music positions, he said, came as then-Iowa Gov. Chet Culver ordered an across-the-board cut in education spending.

"I did get my job back, but then I left as the school was going through some changes," Cole said.

Cole went to work for an excavation company, operating a backhoe, toiling in the trenches, digging ditches.

He kept a presence in the high school music arena at that time by directing West Delaware's show choir bands. He kept digging ditches until he met a performer through an Iowa summer music tour group he chaperoned. The musician, a graduate of South O'Brien High School, suggested Cole apply for a teaching vacancy at Paullina.

"I'd never been to, nor heard of Paullina," Cole said.

He took a leap of Northwest Iowa faith and headed west to interview. The Wartburg College graduate landed the job and began serving South O'Brien in the fall of 2013.

His first jazz band consisted of 12 musicians, zero seniors. The band finished eighth in the Class 2A Northwest Iowa District contest last season, far shy of landing a berth in the prestigious Iowa Jazz Championships.

Fortunes changed for Cole and his musicians this year. South O'Brien's students grew to appreciate Cole's music command and teaching style, and vice-versa.

"The jazz band kind of scared me as I knew of their tradition," he said, noting that South O'Brien, an 8-time state jazz qualifier, reigned as Iowa's top Class 2A jazz band in 2008, a runner-up in 2009. "I know I've learned a lot from the students."

Cole's band grew in number as the school dropped in enrollment. When  district assignments came out three months ago, Cole noticed his band would compete in Class 1A, the smallest enrollment category.

A third-place district effort coupled with a third-place finish at the Iowa Central Community College Jazz Festival and a Division I state competition rating helped Cole & Co. qualify for the 2015 Iowa Jazz Championships, which take place on Tuesday in Des Moines.

It is South O'Brien's first state berth since that 2009 season, one in which  substitute instructor Kevin Linder guided the band.

Linder, now in his last year of teaching at MOC-Floyd Valley, visited South O'Brien on Friday to take the band through two hours of fine-tuning.

Linder knows this musical drill, having directed five bands in the Iowa Jazz Championships during his career: Anthon-Oto, North, East, South O'Brien and MOC-Floyd Valley.

"We got second place at every school except MOC-Floyd Valley," Linder said with a laugh. "Not that it bothers me or anything!"

On Friday, Linder wanted assurance his constructive criticism didn't impede Cole's direction, or the flow of his musicians. Linder moved around the room, trumpet in-hand, offering strategic tips on timing, improvisation, playing quietly when necessary, and raising volume when the opportunity arises.

"Vibrato is your friend, remember that," Linder said. "Rhythm section: If you sit and solo and solo and solo this, you'll get bored with it. And, by the time you perform, your creativity will take over."

Cole pointed to measure 35 in "Children of Sanchez" and noted, "This isn't about playing loud; this is about playing with finesse."

Tayla Coady, a senior alto sax player from Primghar, Iowa, nodded. Like bassist Courtney VanderPol and pianist Carmen Stover, Coady played a little out of position, having picked up the sax this year because one was needed. She's played clarinet for years.

If it's finesse Cole wants, he'll get it. Coady is simply happy to have orders to follow this late on the jazz band calendar. The band, by the way, has a state festival preview performance at 6:30 p.m. this Friday at First Presbyterian Church in Paullina.

"We got third at districts, then waited three weeks to find out if we made it to IJC (Iowa Jazz Championships) as a wildcard" she said. "During that three weeks, we kept practicing because we knew there was a chance."

That chance became reality as South O'Brien qualified. It gave the former ditch digger reason to celebrate, the chance to trump his pink slip memory with a ticket to the Iowa Jazz Championships.

Said Cole, "I never expected this."

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