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Classically Trained: Conductor recalls having a ‘Blast’

To most people, the sound of music students practicing independently is noise, a cacophonous nonsymphony of assorted tones.

But to a band nerd like me, Irvine High School’s band room had a dozen distinct timbres — a saxophone practicing her scales, a trombone working on his slurs, a bassoon repeating tricky passages.

Among all those playing instruments was Derek Venlet, the 6-foot-4, redheaded conductor of music.

Venlet, 32, grew up in Huntington Beach, went to Westminster High School and lives in Rancho Santa Margarita with his wife, Rebecca.

Now he’s in his eighth year as one of the music teachers at Irvine High. The comprehensive, Grammy Award-winning program has three concert bands, three string orchestras, a marching band, various small ensembles, and classes for guitar and piano — even one for ukulele.

I first met Venlet while at Cal State Long Beach. A French horn player like myself, he was a graduate student when I started as a freshman. Sometimes he conducted the band I played in. Sometimes we played in ensembles together.

I’ve always known him as a very funny guy, with tremendous musical talent, a great sense of wit and dedication to his teaching craft.

And for his very, very red hair.

I also knew that he played with “Blast,” a Broadway-style show that combines choreographed brass, percussion and pageantry. It’s part marching band/drum corps, part musical, part dancing, with a little acting mixed in. There’s really nothing else quite like it, which is why I wanted to talk to him about his experiences and mention that, after years of inactivity, “Blast” is again on the road.

It will be coming to Southern California for four performances, from March 30 to April 1. It’s up in the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts — a little jaunt from us in Orange County but worth the trip.

“Blast” was quite the international sensation after its 1999 London premiere. It soon won a Tony Award for being a “Special Theatrical Event” and an Emmy for best choreography.

Disney caught hold of the show and brought it in 2001 to the new but struggling Hyperion Theater inside Disney’s California Adventure. Called “The Power of Blast,” it was a five-movement, condensed version of the original, but still as entertaining and powerful. It ran four times a day, six days a week inside the 2,000-seat venue.

Venlet played in this show from March to September 2002.

I still get excited thinking about the one time I saw “Blast,” though it was the condensed version at Disney. And Venlet, well, he still gets excited, too — and he performed in it some 500 times, although he’s not in this latest revival.

He auditioned for the show in the middle of its Disney run after aging out of drum corps at age 21. He went to Anaheim seeking the national tour, but when they found out he lived in Huntington Beach, they wanted him for the Disney production.

“It was a silly audition. I had to do some acting on video, some playing and marching backstage at Disney,” he said. “Kind of ridiculous stuff.”

He was one of nearly 25 musicians.

He loved the challenge of the “Blast,” seeing kids hear instruments such as his for the first time and trying to perform consistently well — especially when considering he and his colleagues had an implanted microphone in their instruments. They had to be accurate.

One memory he shared of his time on “Blast” was actually a bad one: He fell down near the end of a big move. He had slipped on a “spit puddle” — condensation on the ground.

But he fell backstage. Still, he was so mad that he threw his instrument into its storage shelf. But Venlet soon got over his frustration during the meet-and-greet after the show.

I posed a scenario for Venlet of, in a fateful act of the gods, “Blast” calling him today and asking him to jump into the show. Some 10 years later, could he still do it?

“Same show? Probably,” he replied. “I know the music for sure, and could keep up elsewhere.”

Looking back on his “Blast” and Disney days, Venlet remarked that it was a great job. And the money wasn’t too bad, either.

“You got a check at the end of the week with a comma in it. It was like, ‘What’s this?! This is crazy!’”

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at

Editor’s note: The writer does part-time work for the Disneyland Resort.

If You Go

What: “Blast,” a Broadway-style show of choreographed brass, percussion and pageantry

When: March 30 to April 1. Showtimes vary.

Where: Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos

Information: Tickets start at $30.