FAIRMONT - When she was in the sixth grade, Emma Tunnell attended Fairmont High School band's year-end concert. She had a musical epiphany when the band's jazz group played.
"I was just immediately in love with the saxophone," she said.
She had been playing the clarinet but "never really had any fun with it," she recalled. She begged her parents, John and Gillian Tunnell, to buy a saxophone, and they compromised by renting an instrument.
"I told her: I'll give you three months over the summer, but she was just so inspired with the saxophone," Gillian said.
"I taught myself the basics the summer after sixth grade," Emma said, needing only an instruction book and her passion and enthusiasm to learn the fundamentals.
After a year, the family purchased a new saxophone, which Emma keeps shined and sparkling.
Now 16, Emma is homeschooled, studying her academics through online classes, but her band and music classes are taken at Fairmont Junior/Senior High School, under the guidance of band instructor Kate Kallenbach.
"She (Emma) is an incredibly talented young lady who doesn't just come by it naturally. She works hard!" Kallenbach wrote in an email to the Sentinel. "She accepts nothing less from herself than the very best."
Emma participates in solo and ensemble competitions, receiving superior ratings at sectionals, and she's a member of the sub-section honor band.
"All in all, she's a wonderful student, and I feel very fortunate to get to work with her," Kallenbach wrote.
Emma recently earned a superior rating and "best in site" designation for her solo performance at a Mankato competition with nine other high schools. She played an unusual, "extremely contemporary piece" by Japanese composer, Ryo Noda. Her rendition of the music was recorded at the high school and can be viewed on YouTube.
She also travels to Mankato weekly to study under the tutelage of Preston Duncan, a Fullbright scholar and professor at the University of Minnesota.
Duncan encouraged Emma to apply to Interlochen Arts Camp, a premiere summer arts program near Traverse City, Mich. She submitted two audition pieces and an etude and was accepted as one of only 20 students to attend a one-week session in June.
"She kept saying she couldn't do it," Gillian said.
"I was just amazed" to be accepted, Emma said, adding she wanted to "cry, faint or throw up" when she realized she would be attending the prestigious camp.
Interlochen attracts students, faculty and staff from throughout the United States and more than 40 countries. Its alumni, which have garnered more than 100 Grammy awards, include Norah Jones and Josh Groban.
Next year, Emma hopes to be accepted to the six-week program at Interlochen.
She also will attend the Shell Lake Music Camp in Wisconsin this summer, where several world-renowned saxophonists will conduct master classes for high school students and adults.
"But Interlochen is more intense than Shell Lake," Emma said.
She anticipates a career in music, possibly music therapy, in her future.
"I'm going to keep doing as much as I can," she said. "I totally dig jazz - classical and jazz."
But no matter what the genre is, "I will always do music," she said.