Without any degree of exaggeration, John Soldo is a true musician.

The recent Santa Barbara High School graduate and current Montecito resident plays saxophone, was the lead player in the school’s jazz band and was conductor of the marching band. He also helped provide music for his school’s theater performances of “Copacabana,” “Wind in the Willows” and, most recently, “On the Town.”

“Music has been a huge thing for me in the past six years,” says Soldo, who is 18. “Some of my best times have been up on the stage with a really close group of my friends.”

So even when recent state budget cuts forced several public elementary and junior high schools to cut or reduce their music programs, Soldo found an alternative – and Music Students United (MSU) was born.

Launched in the summer of 2005, MSU was “an idea to create a program where music students of the high school level can come together and see what we can do to try and save these programs,” says Soldo.

MSU consists of a handful of talented student musicians from San Marcos, Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High School.

“All my time has been dedicated to music so I thought I needed to give back and help these kids who were really struggling and didn’t have the support of the administration,” Soldo explains.

MSU’s first plan of action was to perform a benefit concert for La Cumbre Junior High School. The concert raised $3,700, which MSU donated to the school to help the music department purchase instruments, sheet music and perform repairs.

“Our next goal was to help the kids as much as possible,” Soldo says. Since then, MSU has dedicated one day a week to budding musicians at La Cumbre Junior High School.

“I work with the students on things that the director doesn’t have time to do on his own, either pay more attention to solo ideas or work with them on playing more difficult music,” Soldo says.

Unsurprisingly, young musicians at La Cumbre Junior High seem to connect better with Soldo and his peers.

“When I come in, the kids get really excited because they don’t have some older guy working with them,” Soldo says. “They have a young high school student who is really into it and really energetic with all these new ideas.”

Adds Soldo’s mother, Lisa: “This mentoring program has been a two-way street. The kids have gotten something out of it and John has gotten something out of it.”

Soldo’s success with the students was so staggering that several of them decided to attend Santa Barbara High School, an influence Soldo calls a “personal victory.”

“They saw my work ethic and saw the kind of musicians coming out of Santa Barbara High,” says Soldo, adding that he hopes these young musicians can carry on the tradition of giving back.

Soldo’s tutelage extended to students from other schools. For the past year, he volunteered his Sundays to help 13-year-old Andrew Adams, who was first chair saxophonist at Santa Barbara Junior High and is an alumnus of Cold Spring School, where Soldo also attended.

“John taught me commitment by example,” Adams says. “Even when he had better things to do on a Sunday, he still came to teach me.”

In turn, Adams has faithfully attended every one of Soldo’s recent performances.

“It makes me proud to watch John; he is not only a great musician, but has showmanship,” Adams adds. “Even when he is in a competitive situation, he always makes time to talk and encourage the younger kids or wannabes like me.”

Community and Character

Even with a daily planner crammed with musical engagements, Soldo still makes time for community contribution. He works part-time at Coast Village gelato parlor Here’s the Scoop where his boss, co-owner Ellie Patterson, says he’s “one of the few employees that we entrust to make [our homemade] gelato.”

At the same time, Patterson gives Soldo high praises for his commitment to his family, especially the way he treats his little sister, Carlile.

“He always takes time and listens to her and lets her know how special she is,” Patterson says. “To me that is a major indication of the kind of man John is now and who he will be in the future.”

Like his musical involvement, Soldo’s participation at Here’s the Scoop has reached extracurricular heights. For Halloween, he joined a dozen Scoop employees to bring to life a haunted house with a complete speaker system and multiple hallways of haunt. Soldo played the demented “Dr. Soldo,” whose hair-raising “operations” on his “patients” were a true scare for passing children.

When Soldo’s not at school and not at the Scoop, he’s often with members of MSU, who found themselves playing so well together that they formed a small band called Naturally Sharp. The band mates have performed twice at SoHo Restaurant and twice at the iMadonnari Festival, and they continue to play at similar venues.

Soldo credits most of his musical talent to his grandfather, Joe, a big band musician who played all the woodwind instruments on Broadway for 65 years and came to California with “The Carol Burnett Show.” Joe’s worked with the likes of Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow.

As for his future, in the fall Soldo will be studying music at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which boasts one of the strongest music programs in the country.

Like his father, Soldo says he’s always been interested in films and hopes to combine his love of music with making movies by earning a degree in composition.

“Ten years down the road I want to be writing and scoring for film and television,” he says.

For now, Soldo is preparing to leave his quiet Montecito home and emerging out into the “real world.”

“Picking up my cap and gown, it was the first time it really hit me [that I’m leaving],” Soldo says. “But at the same time, I’m really excited to see what else is there and move out of my comfort zone.”