Click photo to enlarge
Campolindo High School music director Johnny Johnson is photographed in the school's band room in Moraga, Calif. on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. (Dan Honda/Staff)

MORAGA -- When Campolindo High School Music Director Johnny Johnson picks up his baton Thursday and again Feb. 28, he'll move his well-regarded young musicians into a new era.

Sure, he led the orchestra, symphonic and jazz band in fall concerts, but with a "keep everything the same" approach to succeeding Harvey Benstein, the man who had been in place for 15 years, Johnson wasn't making ripples.

Even now, the biggest change is his insistence that all students be required to attend the chamber concert.

"It's important that the students see their peers succeeding at something they work on beyond the school day," Johnson said before the first of two spring concerts.

Intent on going through an academic year while "listening for something to speak change," Johnson hasn't heard any change talk yet. But what he has heard since day one, he said, is impressive.

"In the course of 15 years, Harvey took six string players and turned them into an orchestra that can play significant orchestral repertoire. He built a wind band program that can play high level literature. He pushed them all beyond the "school band" to college level material," Johnson said.

Johnson grew up in a little town in Louisiana, playing saxophone. He attended a high school with 600 students, one-third of them in the band.

"The orchestra had died and there was no choir, but we had 200 kids in band and 20 saxophone players," he exclaimed, shaking his head in wonder.

After embarking on a computer science degree in college, Johnson realized his error and made the switch to music education.

"I saw a career path and a path to happiness," he said.

He also saw Benstein, one of his professors and a mentor. Asked what practices of Benstein's he plans to continue, Johnson was tongue-tied.

"Hoo-boy," he responded, revealing the sweet southern undertones of his birthplace. "Man, nearly everything. Not only because he was my teacher, but because of how he rehearsed us -- the standards were consistent," said Johnson, who also praised the supportive Parent Booster organization. "Stylistically, we're different, but our philosophies are so similar, there's been no culture shock."

The students have responded to his arrival by coming (or staying) in droves. Instead of a four- or five-piece jazz combo, the program had enough students to create a Big Band.

Beginning to claim the podium as his own, Johnson said, "We're bringing in coaches and guest artists (including violist Pamela Freund-Striplen and clarinetist Diane Malteste) who are professionals. We're taking trips that are special, artistic experiences. And there's one thing on the horizon: to open the avenue between Joaquin Moraga (Middle School) and us, so we attract more students to the program. The end of that thought is that if a wave of students come, we would have to split again. We'd have a concert band, a symphonic band, a Big Band and an auditioned wind ensemble. I've done my moving around. I want to plop down, learn, grow -- right here."

Orchestral concerts
WHEN: Feb. 21 and Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Performing Arts Center, Campolindo High School 300 Moraga Road, Moraga
COST: Free