Michael Najar’s forehead crinkles in concentration as he plays a melody on the grand piano. Najar, a choir teacher and instructional supervisor of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Palo Alto High School, then clears his throat and demonstrates a vocal warm-up for his Concert Choir students, filling the room with his booming voice. Swaying in time with the music, his students start the vocal excersice and their voices cascade through the open door into the warm spring air.
Before the choir feels complacent with the basic warm-up, Najar challenges his students to sing two notes per chord. The choir responds in whirling, intertwining harmonies, and Najar encourages them with his own accompanying string of whimsical notes.
With his vibrant personality and eagerness to demonstrate tunes for his students, Najar, who also teaches AP Music Theory, is at home in the choir room.
As a high school student, Najar would never have envisioned himself at the helm of a choir classroom. Yet the perseverance that kept him striving, despite failures, to pursue and refine his craft is the same drive he exhibits in his teaching. In many ways, Najar’s musical background has influenced his teaching philosophy. For 13 years and counting, he has created opportunities for his students, hoping they too will experience the beauty and fulfillment of music.
From Magic Johnson to musician
About 20 years ago, when Najar was still a student at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, music was not even on his radar.
“For the first part of high school, I wanted to be Magic Johnson from the Los Angeles Lakers,” Najar says. “Of course, that was ridiculous.”
After two years of basketball, Najar was cut from his school’s team, giving him a chance to explore his budding interests in musical theater and choir.
“I had friends who were great singers, great pianists, great bassists … and I wanted to be cool like them, so I just tried,” Najar says. “I couldn’t do it, but I tried. And then eventually I got closer”
At the University of California, Irvine, Najar became a music major, a decision motivated by his college choir’s tour in Hungary, where the breathtaking concert halls and the extravagant performance led to his realization that he wanted to devote his life to music.
“There’s something special about the arts — where … if you practice, and you’re with the right people, and you’re with a conductor, and all the things happen, it’s absolutely stunning, it’s magical,” Najar says. “And I had one of those magical moments.”
Creating music that’s fresh, not stale
In his Paly choir classes, Najar tries to spread his love for music to his own students, aiming to help them experience special moments like the one that inspired him as a college student. In addition to coaching choirs, he also teaches AP Music Theory, where he continues to experiment with an untraditional, blended learning environment. He especially loves working with students who resemble his high school self, who are insecure about their singing ability but still excited to be in the choir classroom.
“We can take people who’ve never had any experience … and give them the tools to be proficient,” he says. “I love seeing young people going from zero to hero … seeing their eyes open at a certain artistic experience.”
Najar admits to having a special connection with his beginning choir. Since many of the advanced students have been in Paly choir classes since freshmen year, they have developed a close bond with him.
“He [Najar] is one of those teachers who you can really connect to as a person,” says Choir Concert member and junior Emily Read.
“He has a good sense of humor. He does have his ups and downs, so he will get mad at us, but then all of a sudden he’ll crack a joke. … You really are always on your feet, and you have to be ready for anything because with Mr. Najar that’s the way it is.”
Najar guides advanced choir students like Read through rehearsing for intricate performances and competing at festivals. The rehearsal process for any show starts almost a year in advance.
“We are lucky to have incredibly smart, gifted students, so I like to challenge them,” he says. “Sometimes I overreach, but that’s OK … because I want them to learn from it. … We rehearse it for weeks and weeks, but I don’t want it to be stale. … It has to be fresh so you can make music. If it’s stale, you can’t beat it alive.”
All the effort pays off when Najar and his choirs create riveting productions, year after year. This spring, the Pops Concert followed a Bay Area Music theme, while last year the concert centered on soul music.
“I try to make every experience different,” Najar says. “I don’t want to look back in 10 years and say, ‘Well, 10 years ago it was exactly the same.’ … I don’t want to count off my years like that — that’s boring. Everything should and can change.”
The choir’s transition into the new Performing Arts Center, which is expected to open in the fall, promises room for even more creativity in future performances.
“This new performing arts building … is going to change everything,” Najar says. “One of the things that we’re going to have to just do is sit in that building for a little bit. … We’re going to look at it and say … ‘I can use the stage in this way.’… There are so many possibilities.”
Beyond the classroom
Najar’s love for music extends into his spare time, when he sings recreationally in a band, Polaris Drive, composed friends from college.
“I played in bands all through high school and college, some of them incredibly bad, some of them pretty good,” Najar says. “I love to play … It’s mostly when we can; you get married and have two kids, and it becomes harder.”
So far, Najar has also written one musical called “Love Songs in Traffic,” based on his experience growing up in vehicle-laden Los Angeles, and is in the process of writing another.
“I’m working on a musical about Silicon Valley, and that’s all I can say right now,” Najar says, grinning. “I’m very excited about it.” V