James Zuniga has served as Tokay High School’s band teacher and color guard and drumline coach for the past three years.

With 41 years of experience, Zuniga will lead Tokay students into two championships this weekend in Stockton and in San Jose.

Zuniga sat down with the News-Sentinel to discuss his goals for Tokay’s music programs and outcomes for this weekend.

Here’s a lightly edited version of the interview.

Q:What competitions will Tokay be competing in this weekend?

A: We have a color guard in Stockton at Lincoln High School on Saturday. We will be competing in the winter circuit championship. We started this program two years ago and we have 13 students that will be competing in the novice class winter guard division.

On Sunday we will have our drumline championship competition in San Jose at Oak Grove High. We have about 17 students in our winter guard division.

Q: Did you compete in color guard or drumline?

A: I was in high school from 1969 to 1973 and drumline was established in the ’90s. As for the color guard, it was more similar to the military’s honor guard, but I was part of my high school band.

Q: What encouraged you to pursue music?

A: It was one of those things I happened to have a natural affinity for. Some students they have a natural proclivity for athletics of math. For me, I always excelled in music.

Q: What is your teaching philosophy?

A: I firmly believe in encouraging talent and allowing kids to express themselves musically. I believe in creating a system for them to attain success, learn new skills that allow them to problem solve as a team and develop a work ethic that they can transfer into any career.

Q: How do you handle the homework/life balance during competition season?

A: I am really lucky. I’ve been married for 36 years and the woman I married does color guard directing, so she understands competition season and she is extremely understanding, especially since we do not live in this area.

I actually live in Hollister, but my mom lives in Lodi so during the week I stay with her and then I go home during the weekend unless there is a competition, then I am usually traveling during the weekend.

Since my kids are older and don’t live with us anymore it isn’t too stressful, but we do have to schedule things around competition season.

Q: How did you find out about Tokay?

A: I had been teaching at a school previously for about 15 years, and a student that I had taught was a band teacher at a middle school in Lodi. He told me about the position.

Q: You have had a very successful season. What do you attribute that to?

A: The incredible support of the students, the parents, and my colleagues.

Q: Will you be losing any key members of the band this year?

A: We are losing six seniors, which is always a hard loss because you don’t just lose their music ability you lose the personality and the uniqueness that they bring to the group.

Q: What do you like about Tokay that you did not experience at previous schools you taught at?

A: I have been very fortunate to have a great band room and facility but people make this place come to life. I also have the privilege of working for an absolutely amazing school and school district. Working here has been like one of those experiences where everything feels right. I especially love working with principal Erik Sandstorm. He cares a lot about what he does and he is very knowledgeable and he knows how to get things done.

In the 41 years that I have been teaching, I can honestly say this is one of the best schools I have been at. it’s a place that if I was to hang up the keys I could say I worked with the best.

Q: What is your goal for next year, and how do you plan to achieve it?

A: Next year makes for my fourth year at Tokay, and I aspire for a larger class division, and that comes with the overall growth of the band size.


Age began playing music: 10

First instrument learned: Drums.

Asked about other instruments: “My major instrument is the trombone, and for composing and range I play piano.”

Music education: San Jose State University.

Did you ever consider doing something else besides music?: “No, it has been such a big part of my life that I cannot say I have considered anything else.”

Why do you think people feel overwhelmed by music, or are apprehensive about learning to play an instrument?: “I think people see how it is written and get intimidated by it and that might deter them from learning an instrument.”

Is there an instrument you struggle learning?: “Most people do not consider their voice an instrument but I do, and I have never really liked the sound of my voice when I sing.”

Length of time teaching music and coaching band: 41 years

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