Going out on a high note

Chris Niemann plays the trombone during band class at Sobrato High School. Niemann has also played the piano, tuba and bass clarinet.

When Chris Niemann – a music aficionado currently in his senior year at Ann Sobrato High School – was a toddler, he always talked at such a high volume that his parents decided his hearing should be tested.

The Niemanns soon discovered their suspicions were well-founded when their 3.5-year-old son was diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears, a condition approximately three in 1,000 babies are born with.

Now 18, Niemann has been wearing hearing aids in both ears ever since.

“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” said Chris’ father, Scott Niemann of his family’s visit to a hearing clinic to get him fitted for the hearing aids.

“They put the hearing aids in his ears, and the gal said to say something to him. So, I whispered to him: ‘How does that sound, buddy?’”

His son responded instantly – and it was at that moment his father knew things had changed for the better. Before the hearing aid, Niemann would have never been able to hear a whisper.

Now, 15 years later, what was initially perceived as a physical setback hasn’t thwarted Niemann’s innate skill for identifying the instruments played in a song, his passion for classical music, ability to play multiple instruments or compose on his own. Most recently, his talents landed him a guest conductor role for the South Valley Symphony in March.

“I was nervous. It was a little nerve-racking,” said Niemann of the musical score he led during the Symphony’s March 9 “Tales of Adventure” concert at the Gavilan College Theater in Gilroy. “I was a little surprised with myself. As soon as I got up on the podium, it was all pretty good.”

The South Valley Symphony, led by director Anthony Quartuccio since 2006, is a community orchestra comprised of 38 musicians that has been performing for audiences in South Santa Clara County for 39 years.

“I thought it was interesting because he showed a maturity level on the podium that I was impressed with,” said principal percussionist Martin Groen, a family friend of the Niemanns and Symphony member since 1980. “I was quite impressed…it was enjoyable to not only play, but to listen to.”

Niemann, who scored his first professional conducting gig after winning a composer’s contest presented by the South Valley Symphony, was at ease in the music and well within his element.

“I felt really comfortable. The atmosphere that the members of the symphony provided made it so much fun to work with them,” said the young musician/composer/conductor, whose four-year tenure with the Sobrato High band includes stints on the tuba and trumpet. His current instrument of choice is the trombone.

Niemann, who still occasionally struggles to hear various spoken words during conversations, wasn’t just conducting a score from Ludwig Van Beethoven or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Franz Shumbert.

“Chris is a cultural gem in the South Valley.  He’s an amazingly talented composer whose ability is beyond his years,” said Quartuccio. “As a conductor, his additional talent to communicate non-verbally with gestures in music was astoundingly clear and expressive.  The orchestra and I felt inspired that someone so young could bring such richness to our music making.”

The group of 38 professional South Valley musicians played a classical piece written by a local Morgan Hill composer: Niemann himself. The contemporary piece, titled “Stairway to the Unknown,” is described by Niemann as a “little bit of everything;” the tone periodically shifting from “wicked” to “relaxed.”

Niemann’s performance blew away two of his biggest fans sitting front and center that special evening.

“We were very, very proud of him,” beamed Chris’ mother, Jennifer Niemann. “We had only heard little pieces of it (leading up to the performance), but he just blew us away.”

A proud father shared in those sentiments.

“It was incredible. It was really indescribable,” said Scott. “To hear it played by a professional symphony and to have him conduct it, I was choked up. It was impressive.”

And it wasn’t even Chris’s first rodeo. He previously conducted another one of his own musical scores, “Friendship,” as a freshman with the Sobrato High band.

That was a memorable night, the teen recalled, but his latest compilation (“Stairway to the Unknown”) – one derived out of bits and piece of a longer score he created for a friend’s short film – meant the world to him.

“He’s just totally tuned in. It’s amazing to us,” said Scott, who recalled one occasion when his young son pointed out when the alto sax was being used in a song streaming from the car radio. “He’s a normal kid otherwise. He’s just got this aptitude and gift for music. It’s awesome.”

His parents stake no claim in their son inheriting any musical genes from either side of the family, but Niemann does point to one man who inspired him: Erik Kalish, former director of the Martin Murphy Middle School and Sobrato High band.

“He really got me into learning the fundamentals of music,” said Chris, of Kalish. “He really inspired me.”

Kalish, who left Morgan Hill to pursue his master’s degree from the School of Music at State University of New York at Fredonia, is bashful about his influence on his former student.

“Niemann is a great kid,” said Kalish, who was not at all surprised by his guest conductor spot with the South Valley Symphony. “From the first moment he walked into my classroom as a seventh-grader, I saw him take a unique interest in music, more so than other kids.”

Kalish, who immediately noticed that same blue-eyed student with short curly hair had hearing aids, “remembers thinking, “how’s that going to effect him?” but soon learned “it didn’t phase him at all.”

Kalish said Niemann has “single-mindedly been focused on doing this (composing) for a long time…he’s always impressed me…his natural ability is pretty amazing. He has a lot of potential to be pretty great at this.”

Niemann’s mother – who remembers watching her 5-year-old son pretend to conduct “Peter and the Wolf” with a straw in one hand while sitting in the back of the car – thinks so, too. As does her husband, who has always told Chris and his younger brother Bryan to “find what you love to do and figure out how to get paid doing it.”

Chris will continue to follow that advice when he graduates in the spring and attends West Valley College in Saratoga, where he plans to study sound design and composition classes.

He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his favorite composers including John Williams (“Star Wars”), James Horner (“Titanic,” “Braveheart”) and Danny Elfman (“The Simpsons,” “Batman”). Niemann, who wants to work with Hollywood movie directors to compose musical scores for their films, said musical composition is a form of “expression.”

“Let’s say there’s something really sinister happening in a film,” he explained, trying to break down exactly what it is he loves to do. “I can bring that sinister out and make the audience feel that sinister.”

But for now, he’ll settle for another crack at composing the background music for his classmate’s independent short film or conducting bandmates during the next school performance.

“He’s doing it all on his own,” proclaimed Chris’s father, an accountant by trade who still doesn’t fully understand exactly how his boy does what he does. “We’re surprised about everything just because we’re not music people…we’ve only heard from other people who do know and say he’s very talented.”