By Alexis Castillo
Shadows on the white ground dance underneath a series of miniature spotlights, synchronized to the rhythm of electric guitars. As the drummer initiates the tempo, five guitars and a bass follow. With COVID-19 safety guidelines in place, the Lab 5 Guitar Ensemble, also known as the L5, gathers every Monday and Wednesday, led by their director in double-masked fashion: jazz professor Paul Metzger.
As each player has their own method of keeping time, whether it be head nodding or finger tapping, Metzger is on his feet, bouncing his knees and conducting each section with two-finger guns.
The L5 is a group of students at UNT who play music at a professional level. The L5 is designed with a focus on sight-reading, and allows musicians to play what highlights their specific talents. The ensemble’s goal is admittance into UNT’s famous One O’Clock Lab Band, which is known for its successes in the professional music industry as both performing artists and jazz educators.
Though the pandemic has thrashed UNT’s musical culture by limiting group practices and restricting live shows, Metzger has not let the gloomy year ruin the spirit of his jazz ensemble. He keeps the musical essence alive by encouraging the talented students to explore writing their own pieces.
Metzger is a UNT alumnus who took part in guitar ensembles himself. As an undergraduate student, he worked in the music industry, playing top 40 gigs, wedding bands and teaching music. When he went back to school for his master’s degree, he was assigned to direct a guitar ensemble as a teaching assistant.
“Guitar players are lucky,” Metzger said. “It’s an instrument that fits so many genres of music, so everybody gets to express themselves.”
Metzger pulls out an acoustic guitar and shows how notes on a guitar work up and down the neck. He presses his bearded chin against the guitar, strums the higher strings past the twelfth fret, then the lower strings past the third.
Davy Mooney, head of the jazz guitar department at UNT, has worked with Metzger for years. Mooney said Metzger is an important asset to the music department.
“He’s very patient [and] very understanding,” Mooney said. “He’s a great player.”
Because the L5 encompasses extraordinary talents, Metzger’s directing style is to step back and allow the players to guide each other.
“I want them to let me know what they think they need to work on,” Metzger said. “I get a sense of joy when I know when to get out of the way and let them shine.”
With a humble smile, he recognizes that he works with a brilliant group of students. He said he denies a boss-like position and approaches his students as what he describes as an experienced peer.
Music freshman Gabriel Garcia plays a sunburst Gibson ES-335 in Metzger’s lab. He enjoys Metzger’s style of directing because of the independence it allows him.
“You have a lot of freedom in doing what you want to learn,” Garcia said.
Under normal circumstances, the L5 would meet four times a week, but because of COVID-19, practice times are limited, and they cannot perform as often.
Garcia said COVID-19 has impacted his musical practice at UNT.
“I’m lucky because I’ve gotten to play with a lot of new people here, but not as much as I would in a normal year,” Garcia said. “I haven’t really gotten to play shows that much, but it is what it is. I played one show recently, and that made me realize how much I miss that kind of stuff.”
Since UNT began reopening some facilities in the fall, Metzger and his lab adapted to COVID-19 safety precautions, which have changed the atmosphere of the music facility.
“You could walk through that building at any time during normal conditions and hear more music than you’d ever know, and it’s overwhelming, but it’s a joy,” Metzger said. “In one room there’s people rehearsing, in this room there’s a concert, in this room there’s a class, going from 8 a.m. to midnight, every day.”
Despite restrictions from the pandemic, Metzger said the spirit of live music has kept him in tune.
“I haven’t lost my motivation,” Metzger said. “I’m thankful for having a job that involves music, where I have to think musically, and be part of an ensemble, and listen and help students. I’m lucky.”
Courtesy Paul Metzger