Through a work ethic born out of necessity to cope with dyslexia, Nathan Palmer (SHP ’23) is finding opportunities as a musician
You may have seen Sacred Heart Preparatory (SHP) junior Nathan Palmer playing his saxophone around town in his jazz quartet or in several other local bands—he’s a weekly regular at Bistro Vida in Menlo Park, performing for the brunch crowd on weekends and on Tuesday nights.
Over the summer, he performed on stage at the San Mateo County Fair with jazz/pop band The Headliners. He also earned a scholarship to the prestigious Aspire: Five-Week Music Performance Intensive at Berklee College of Music in Boston, returning home to Menlo Park with only a day to spare before beginning his junior year at SHP.
Aspire has graduated such notable alums as Meghan Trainor, Charlie Puth, and Betty Who. Like them, Palmer hopes to make music his career. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he says.
But music didn’t come easily for him, Palmer attests, who first picked up a saxophone in the fifth grade. As with most subjects, he’s put in double the work because of dyslexia. In fact, he decided to attend SHP beginning his freshman year because of the school’s highly regarded Academic Support Center (ASC).
“With my dyslexia, in school and music, I’m not naturally good at most things, and it takes me a very long time to pick things up,” says Palmer, recalling how his twin brother would assist him during middle school by writing out all the notes on his sheet music; but by high school, Palmer was sight reading. “Dyslexia made it so I really need to work at something to develop it. When I do learn something, there is a solid foundation there—I’m not going to forget it,” says Palmer.
He took choir last year from SHP teacher Clem Cano to develop his ear. “He’s great, and that class was great because learning to sing really develops your ear, which is important in jazz.”
While some musicians have a natural “perfect pitch” and can identify any note, Palmer has been able to develop a skill called relative pitch. “If I’m told what a note is, I can identify other notes relative to it. So, if it’s an E, I know that’s a major third away from C, so then I can hear ‘that’s a G, that’s a B,’ and so on.”
His freshman year he joined the SHP jazz band that practiced in the early morning hours before school; he joined again this year. Since the eighth grade, every summer except the most recent one, he has attended Stanford Jazz Camp, subsequently joining Stanford Jazz’s middle school all-star big band, “Giant Steps Big Band” for the duration of his eighth-grade school year. “That was the first band where everyone was just as into music as I was,” he says, calling it a “pivotal” experience.
Beginning fall of 2021, Palmer plays first tenor saxophone in the Stanford Jazz’s year-round high school all-star band, “Miles Ahead Big Band,” as well as with the Stanford Jazz Orchestra college-level band, and as second tenor in SF JAZZ’s “High School All-Stars Big Band,” comprised of the Bay Area’s 20-25 finest jazz musicians and considered one of the best year-round high school bands in the nation.
Music has given Palmer a “community of people, and a purpose” at SHP and beyond. The friendships and connections that have grown out of participation in numerous bands and music programs continue to further his career along. In fact, he was even once recruited when walking past a jazz band rehearsing in a garage—one of the band members recognized him from Stanford jazz camp. “Each gig I play helps me meet more people, and I end up finding other gigs.”
Along with teachers at Stanford, Berklee, and SHP, Palmer credits contemporary artists like Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, and Kenny Garrett as having a major influence on him, along with past greats like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Sonny Stitt.
“Listening to the masters, I’ll learn their solos by ear, then I’ll take some of their bebop lines and put them through all 12 keys. In the practice room, it feels almost regurgitated, but when I’m playing a gig, it’s very spontaneous because everything’s morphing and developing as we go. It’s like this big pot of just our consciousnesses working together to create music.”