As he plays his baritone saxophone in the office of Van Buren High School Band director Ron Smith, 17-year-old Manuel Valente’s brow is furrowed in concentration.
Playing the baritone - often called a bari sax for short - requires more air, stamina and strength than its more popular and melodious saxophone cousins, the alto and tenor.
Valente was focused strictly on his performance of the Ferling Etude No. 13. An etude is a short musical composition, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of the player.
No. 13 was a piece Valente was required to perform in his audition to compete for all state band. Valente received the top spot - first chair, first band - at the Arkansas School Band and Orchestra Association all-state clinic in February.
In this case, Valente demonstrated powerful skill by manipulating the notoriously difficult saxophone into comparatively high tones and smooth transitions to accompany its naturally deep, growling sound.
Valente described his own baritone performance as rich and resonant.
"A lot of bari players from the state, they sound so jazzy, so honky," Valente said. "For some reason my embouchure was able to settle in, and it created this new tone to it."
Embouchure is the use of facial muscles and shaping of lips to the mouthpiece of woodwind or brass instruments.
Though the baritone saxophone is usually meant to provide the foundation for a horn section, Valente does not let that stop him from showing off its potential.
"That’s what separates him," Smith said, "…is the musical way he performs on an instrument that may not innately lend itself to being musical as easily as other instruments. You have to really know how to tame the beast. In his hands, it is amazing; it is shocking what he can make that instrument do."
Valente, too, has shown a great deal of potential after being name all-state for the second year and placing first in the state.
While Smith and his band staff have provided Valente with guidance and counsel, Smith said the "vast majority" of his success is due to a combination of talent and hard work.
"I used to not buy into that theory that anyone was a ‘natural born’ anything until I started being able to work with Manuel, and I do believe he has a god-given talent," Smith said.
Smith added that Valente "also works his tail off."
"All the accolades that he has achieved, he’s earned every bit of it," Smith said. "He has maximized every opportunity that he’s been given."
With the encouragement of a former band director, Valente began performing in the band in sixth grade, he said. His mother forced him to stick with it rather than switch to football in seventh grade, and though he was unhappy with her decision at the time, he now is glad she did.
"During my ninth grade year at the Freshman Academy, I realized that music was a big part of my life and that it truly shaped how I did in academics and how I did everywhere else, outside of school and in school," Valente said.
"It really showed me what it took to have a commitment to something, and what it took to really show a dedication and have a discernment for what is good in this world," Valente said.
As focused and earnest as Valente is when performing, he is more so when discussing his faith in God. Valente gives credit to his Christian faith and belief in God for his musical talent and its impact on his life.
"My belief is my God has been able to shape me as who I am through music," Valente said. "He’s used music to show me how to be gentle, how to be compassionate, but at the same time how to direct my anger toward something that is useful and ultimately helps glorify him in all ways."
Valente carries his Bible with him on a daily basis, at the ready if he needs a moment of reflection or to reference for discussion, he said.
It was the summer of 2013 before his second year of marching band camp that Valente felt called to leave his family’s Catholic faith to become evangelical Christian, eventually joining First Baptist Church of Fort Smith.
"That’s when God really started opening my heart to his word and where I stood in this world, and what it meant for me," Valente said.
With some guidance from a friend, Valente left his former ways of living angry and prideful, he said.
Valente believes it was his pride that caused him to fail at achieving all-state band his junior year, after being all-state as a sophomore.
"This year when I went to all-state, I made sure that it was all about him and always about him, and ultimately God proved that it was about him," Valente said.
In school and in band, Valente leads by example, Smith said. Regardless of the situation, Valente remains calm and collected.
"You can just tell that there is something about him, an inner peace, an inner strength, and I truly believe that that comes from his faith," Smith said. "If we were all more like him, I think the world would be a much, much better place."
Cesia Pirir, 17, met Valente last year through band and church. Valente encourage Parir to "get out of her bubble" and help people, and to perform better in school and her other activities, she said.
"He really pushed me toward doing things that were a little uncomfortable to me," Parir said. "That’s a great quality in a friend, so I admire that."
Another of Valente’s qualities that Parir admires is his dedication. In almost all of his free time at school, Valente can be found practicing, she said.
"That’s just who he is. I mean, he’s good. He was good last year, but he wanted to drive for more," Parir said.
Music is Valente’s way of communicating and connecting with God, Parir said, which is why it is so important in his life.
"He just loves music; he has a great passion for it," Parir said.
While Valente personally enjoys praise and worship music, his favorite musical genre as a performer is jazz - a genre which by nature allows more artistic freedom.
"You’re trying to express feelings in a way that’s not so much in a band setting where you’re in this little box, but rather you’re free to express yourself however you want," Valente said. "Through jazz you can express whether you’re mad or happy; you can do whatever you want with the music."
Valente plans to study music education at Arkansas Tech University after he graduates this spring, with later plans to get his doctorate, he said.
"What I really hope to do is expand my vocabulary and my knowledge in music, and I feel like that’s going to be the time for me to blossom as a musician," Valente said.