Humans of Harker: The art of improvisation

Joshua Valluru (12) loses himself in the world of music

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Emily Chen

“Something that's really been kind of underappreciated nowadays is just the art of improvisation, not having to plan out anything and just kind of living in the moment and playing whatever's on your mind. Oftentimes, people don't realize that that type of phrasing and even rap emerged from improvisation and from just taking risks. I guess that’s the world of music. It encompasses a lot of different colors. There's a lot of crossover between things, and that's what interests me about it,” Joshua Valluru (12) said.

Softly strumming his guitar, Joshua Valluru (12) improvises as the acoustics in the lobby of the Rothschild Performing Arts Center round out his sound.

“Guitar has been a huge part of my life at high school,” Joshua said. “With the jazz band, I’ve been doing that all four years. I started to get into more of the competitive side of it, but at its heart and, and the element that I really enjoy about it, is just being able to meet with new people and communicate musically. It’s just something I think is relaxing, and I can get my head out of the book.”

Joshua started his journey with guitar in first grade, but he transitioned to playing jazz music in eighth grade. Through learning from professionals these past few years, he has grown immensely and improved his musicianship skills. 

“Playing with professionals, especially during jam sessions or at night at some cafes, is really cool,” Joshua said. “They play bass and drums, and they invite guitarists or saxophones. I think just learning from those guys has helped me a lot, even recording for college auditions, but it’s very informative. It’s fun playing with them because they’re so much better than you. So, it’s kind of humbling but also, again, really amazing getting a lot of wisdom from each of those individual sessions.”

In ninth grade, Joshua and a few other members of the jazz program performed a small gig at the Pink House cafe in Saratoga, and Josh recalled this as one of his most memorable moments. 

“It was when the whole jazz program was pretty young, and Dr. Hart basically got all these guys in jazz band to play a little gig at this cafe,” Joshua said. “It was fun because I never played in a full-fledged jazz cafe before, and it was a good experience in that way. It was also great because I could share this opportunity with these people because we all kind of grew up together with the program.”

When picking music selections, Joshua and his friends have a specific process. 

“I’m kind of stubborn and picky, but essentially we just throw out tunes that we listened to, and it doesn’t always necessarily have to be jazz. It can be rock pop, even like classical music. There’s no hard, fast rule. It’s really just what we all like and what we feel fits the instrumentation,” Joshua said.

Besides participating in jazz band and being a part of different bands outside and inside of Harker, Joshua, along with William Rainow (12) and Thomas Rainow (12), have repurposed the idea of Guitar Club and incorporated new aspects to make the club more impactful. 

“The club before got a lot done in terms of the community aspect, like teaching students different songs and having meetings, but we wanted to take that a step further and implement some performance opportunities. We all tried to help people individually and meet with them privately,” Joshua said.

What truly motivates Joshua to continue pursuing guitar, though, are the people and community that surround him. Even with activities unrelated to guitar, Joshua strives to find different means to spend time with his friends and meet new people.  

“I think the most valuable thing and the reason why I like music is the community aspect of it,” Joshua said. “I’ve made so many friends through music, but I’ve also made a lot of friends and maintained friendships through doing things like different sports like tennis. When I got injured in tennis in ninth grade, I looked at different ways I could spend time with my friends … Sometimes, I would bike to gigs because it’s just fun, and going with your friends and eating out together makes the whole experience.”

William recounted the fun memories he had when spending time with Joshua. 

“No matter how you are feeling during the day, if you talk to Josh and just spend more than five minutes with him, you are guaranteed to feel happier,” William said. “There have been so many times where we would be just relaxing, eating lunch or hanging out outside of school, and we’d tell a joke or something funny would happen and we’d all go nuts. That’s what is so special about him.” 

One lesson Joshua has learned from his years in playing guitar is to not be afraid of holding back and to always take risks, no matter where they might lead you.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can’t really express yourself or your unique take on things without playing loudly or contributing to something,” Joshua said. “I felt this a lot with guitar, especially when I played a solo. Sometimes I wouldn’t play as well as I could because I was holding back, but the more I found myself taking risks, going for more notes, and trying to deliberately make mistakes, I’d get more out of it.”

Especially with improvisation, Joshua has learned the art of taking risks and creating work that translates into different jazz music. 

“Something that’s really been kind of underappreciated nowadays is just the art of improvisation, not having to plan out anything and just kind of living in the moment and playing whatever’s on your mind,” Joshua said. “Oftentimes, people don’t realize that that type of phrasing and even rap emerged from improvisation and from just taking risks. I guess that’s the world of music. It encompasses a lot of different colors. There’s a lot of crossover between things, and that’s what interests me about it.”

Being one of Joshua’s best friends, Thomas has witnessed Joshua’s work ethic and willingness to take risks. 

“Josh is a trooper,” Thomas said. “He’ll endure any challenge, apply himself efficiently, and prioritize reaching his goals, whether it’s in or out of school. He puts so much effort into everything he does, and the level of dedication he holds is admirable. He’s also always willing to try something new, whether it’s playing the drums or making pizza, Josh loves experimenting with new hobbies.”