Beloved choir instructor Jim Yowell bids goodbye to Saratoga

January 31, 2014 — by Allison Lin and Gwynevere Hunger

As the second semester began, students and staff members were missing the smile of a prominent teacher on campus: Jim Yowell. 

As the second semester began, students and staff members were missing the smile of a prominent teacher on campus: Jim Yowell. After 10 years as a choir, orchestra and AP Music Theory instructor, Yowell said his final farewells to his students and their families at the choir’s holiday concert on Dec. 10. 
His retirement, coming at midyear, surprised students, staff and parents.
In the meantime, the school has hired a replacement choir teacher: Andrew Ford. On Jan. 1, choir students discovered that Ford will be replacing Yowell in his teaching position.
 Several senior choir students described Ford’s enthusiasm and terrific personality and are glad that an talented director will be taking over for the remainder of the year.
Ford has been a conducting student of Dr. Jeffrey Benson of San Jose State University. Benson is one of the top choral conductors in the western United States and leads one of the best choir programs. 
When the music program learned of Yowell’s departure, music department head Michael Boitz quickly went calling around to local choir directors. 
“I made a call to Dr. Benson and Mr. Ford was the first name that he [suggested],” said Boitz. “He said, ‘Andrew Ford, you need to get this guy.’”
Ford is thankful for the opportunity his new job presents. 
“I really and truly feel very honored and grateful for this opportunity to be teaching at Saratoga,” Ford said, “It could have been any other person here, and I got picked; it’s kind of like winning the lottery.”
Ford will remain the choir director for the remainder of the year, but arrangements for next year and the years following are still up in the air.
“I would love to make a home here as a Falcon, but what we are looking at here right now is finishing off the semester,” Ford said.
He said that for the few months he has with the choir, he wants to make sure that they are prepared for their evaluations in the spring.
“I know it might sound weird that I’m focusing on the short term, but my focus is on the end of this year, and making sure it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, there’s a replacement here and he did an awful job,’” Ford said.  “My goal is to give [the choir] a spectacular end of the year.”
Along with teaching the Saratoga choirs part time, Ford also directs the Calvary Church Choir in Los Gatos. This will be his first high school teaching job.
Yowell’s first-period philharmonic orchestra, composed of sophomores, juniors and seniors, has now been grouped together along with the first-period freshman orchestra. Both the philharmonic orchestra and the freshman orchestra are under the direction of Jonathan Pwu. 
Naoki Taniguchi has also taken over Yowell’s teaching role for AP music theory during third period. Taniguchi is now teaching jazz band at Redwood Middle School and Saratoga High. He graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition and saxophone performance. 
Yowell’s impact on Saratoga High
After graduating from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and receiving his Bachelors and Masters degree in Music Education, Yowell went on to teach music in the California public school system for more than 30 years. Yowell received the honor of becoming the district’s teacher of the year in 2008-2009. 
A decade ago, the school successfully recruited Yowell from Fresno, and he instantly turned the choral program around, creating a number of strong choirs at the school.
Before his retirement, Yowell conducted the Women’s Ensemble, Cantare Chorale, Chamber Singers, Concert Choir and the Saratoga Men’s Choir, which he taught during Wednesday lunches because it didn’t have its own class period. He also formed a 4-octave handbell choir called the Saratoga High School Ringers.
Yowell is beloved by hundreds of students and graduates, and many were deeply saddened when he announced his departure on Nov. 18. According to many students in his classes, Yowell was teary-eyed as he explained the sudden news. 
During the summer of 2012, Yowell led the choir group on a music tour of Europe, entertaining families and dignitaries along the way. Each year, he has led the Chamber Singers, Cantare Chorale and Concert Choir to their caroling performance in San Francisco. 
Yowell has served as president of the California American Choral Directors Association, the Bay Area and State choral representative to the California Music Education Association board and State of California Honor Choir Chairperson. 
In his many years of teaching at Saratoga, Yowell has helped students who love music, as well as students who are foreign to it, become passionate about singing, playing instruments and studying the fundamentals of music. Yowell’s main focus was the choirs, and students of different levels have studied with him to improve their vocals and expand their singing skills. 
“Mr. Yowell has opened me up to so many opportunities through choir. I've gotten to perform with choir at venues I wouldn't have even dreamed of like in the Vatican,” senior Nina Jayashankar said. “Most importantly, Mr. Yowell helped shape me as a person by opening me up to a group of people who loved to sing.”
Many students who have known Yowell for a long time along with those who have only studied with him for a short time, have formed a strong relationship with him through daily choir classes, countless performances and numerous competitions. 
Sophomore Ankitha Sarvesh came under Yowell’s vocal teaching during the summer before her freshman year.  
“He is a passionate and dedicated person who really kept the choir program alive,” Sarvesh said. “The reason we are so good is because of how hard he pushed us.”
Many teachers had also created a strong friendship with Yowell over the course of his teaching time. 
“I was saddened to hear that Mr. Yowell would be leaving us; he is a fine teacher and a good person,” English teacher Cathy Head said. “We will miss him.” 
The Chamber Choir put its thanks into a couple of songs that they rehearsed on their own for Yowell and performed at the final concert. The tribute song that they sang, “Thank You For the Song,” brought a huge smile to Yowell’s face. He also received numerous hand-written cards from students who thanked him for his hard work and loving personality.  
“I'll miss him as a teacher, but I'll also miss him as a friend,” Jayashankar said.
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