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Director of Instrumental Arts
The King’s Academy
West Palm Beach, Florida
Imagine teaching at the school that not only you attended as a child, but where your mother went to school and was the drum major. “I understand and appreciate the culture of excellence that has been established at The King’s Academy (TKA),” says Wes Lowe. “My heritage and ties to the band program here inspire and motivate me to lead the program in a way that continues to have life-changing impact on my students. I love teaching at TKA and want to uphold the legacy of the instrumental arts program.”
One way Lowe is doing this is by increasing band enrollment numbers. “Teaching at a K-12 school that is housed on one campus has some great benefits, such as being able to streamline the program so I can be involved in each band class,” he explains.
Lowe schedules performance trips to Disney World, Atlanta and Boston to provide motivation and incentives for his middle and high school students. “But the key to have a successful program is to have a strong beginning band program,” he says. “I took the lead in these classes and opened up band instruction for 4th-grade students for the first time. With research and study, I implemented proper fundamentals and training to these beginner band students all while making the class fun and enjoyable.”
Another area that has really taken off at TKA is the jazz program. Lowe credits this growth to three things: 1) He sets the bar for his students to perform at a professional level. “We take recordings of professional jazz bands and aim to play and perform at that level,” he says. 2) “Night of Jazz” concerts are scheduled throughout the school year where the jazz ensemble performs 14 or more jazz charts to sold-out audiences. Special guest artists like Duffy Jackson and Wayne Bergeron have performed with the band. 3) The jazz band consistently performs for the community. “This is a vital part of the program. Performing at retirement communities, charitable events and downtown marketplaces allows us to share the joy of music, and it opens the eyes and minds of my students to fully realize the power and impact that music can have on people,” Lowe says.
Lowe also spends time planning for the marching band’s halftime shows. “My goal with my halftime show is to produce a show that is modern and contemporary while creating an experience that isn’t typical for a high school marching band,” Lowe says. “I plan to the strengths of my program, which change each year. This year, I have an amazing singer, so I designed the show around her.”
The show included pyrotechnics, a specially choreographed dance routine and costumes that fit the style of the music. “I knew we would be compared to a Super Bowl halftime show because that is the standard and level that we aim to achieve,” Lowe says. “This was the first year we did a performance like this, and it surprised and shocked the audience in an impressive way. But next year might be completely different, and I am completely fine with that because it allows me to be creative and modern with my approach and design.”
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Director of Bands
Davenport Central High School
The Davenport Central High School band has a 136-year history, and Alexander Wilga is only the school’s eighth head director. “I am incredibly proud and very humbled that I get to work where I do,” he says. “The band program means so much to the community, and we do everything we can to give back to our area and make those who came before us proud. I know that I am just a placeholder, and my job is to make sure the program is in better shape when I am done than when I started.”
One way Wilga is doing this is by growing band enrollment to more than 240 students. “Our biggest recruiting success has been fostering a strong relationship with our junior high band program,” he says. “We participate in our 7th- and 8th-grade band rehearsals, we invite the junior high concert bands and jazz bands to share concerts with the high school, we share a halftime performance during the marching season, and we share our first public performance of the year called the Ice Cream Social, which happens on the third day of school.”
Wilga also focuses on retaining high school students by making sure that every student has a voice in the direction of the program and by providing more participation options for students. “We require every band student to be in concert band but from there they can choose to be in marching band, jazz band, color guard, winter guard, show choir band, brass choir, woodwind choir, percussion ensemble, steel drum band, as well as a whole host of solo and ensemble opportunities,” Wilga says.
The biggest change that positively affected enrollment numbers was that the financial burden of band participation was taken away from Davenport Central families. “We are a 75% free and reduced lunch district, so asking families to spend money to rent or purchase an instrument can put music education out of reach for many of our students,” Wilga explains.
He was involved in coordinating a proposal that secured guaranteed funding for music programs across the district. “I can be very persistent when I have to be,” Wilga admits. “I was very fortunate to have an amazing associate superintendent who knew how important the arts are to our students and our community. It was also wonderful — and risky! — to stand as a united district music department and tell the school board that we would no longer be able to provide music programs if there wasn’t going to be district funding.” Thankfully, the gamble paid off.
Wilga goes on to say, “I am always pushing for my students to have every experience that is possible through band. I don’t want them to worry about quality instruments, quality facilities, adequate funding or the other administrative things that come with a large program. I don’t want students to have a single roadblock so that they are free to become the best versions of themselves that they can possibly be.”
A final note from Wilga: “The machine that slices bread was invented in Davenport, so you are all welcome!”
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Instrumental Music Teacher
Lakeshore Elementary School
Rochester, New York
Working at a Title I school can be challenging, but Heather Taylor isn’t deterred. “My students are amazing! They live in a low-income suburb of Rochester and receive free breakfast, lunch and many other school and family services,” she says. “While some live in a typical family unit, others live with their grandparents, in a foster home or have even been homeless. But even with these circumstances they are THRIVING in music!”
Taylor’s students take the bus one hour before school starts to make it to early morning band. If they miss the bus, they will walk to school in the freezing upstate New York winter weather. “They give up lunch and recess time to help me organize music or sort handouts,” she says. “They make me want to be a better teacher and provide them with the proper materials to succeed!”
Her can-do attitude obviously works because her music program at Lakeshore Elementary School is the largest elementary program in the district. She credits her high enrollment numbers on having high expectations and building relationships with her students. “I hold my students accountable for practicing at home and making music together in lessons and rehearsals,” she says.
Relationship-building comes naturally for Taylor. “I am so fortunate to be able to work with students not only in a large ensemble setting but in small group weekly lessons as well,” she explains. “These small group lessons allow me to get to know my students on a personal level, which basically eliminates any misbehaviors in my classroom. I want my students to know that I am a trusted adult and that my classroom is a safe space for them. They can come down to my classroom anytime — if they need a break, if they want to have lunch, etc. Sometimes that is all it takes for a student to want to come to school, to want to learn, to want to participate in music.”
Taylor did not want finances to be a barrier for students to participate in music. So she looked for ways to get instruments, accessories and classroom materials for her band program. “This continued to grow as I found alternative ways of getting these supplies (other than school/district budgets), such as instrument drives, #clearthelist movement, grants, Donors Choose, etc.,” she says. “All the materials I have received are immediately put into the hands of my students so that we can continue making music together!”
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Director of Bands and Orchestras
Dwight D. Eisenhower High School
Blue Island, Illinois
“I believe that being a music educator is less about the ornate spires and more about the individual bricks that build the castle,” says Justin Antos. And he has amassed a number bricks to form a strong foundation for his students at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School, Saint Xavier University where he is the band director and Trinity Christian College where he is an adjunct professor of music.
Antos’ formula for growing his music program? Building morale and establishing a culture of respect and encouragement is an integral first step. “I celebrate little victories constantly to enhance my students’ sense of pride,” Antos says. “I also try to be as visible as possible. I talk with students in the cafeteria during their lunch periods, I walk with them in the hallways during passing periods and I attend their athletic events and non-musical performances. When students see than I am committed to them and that our program provides a safe and familial environment, new students flock to take music classes.”
Eisenhower’s population is 90% low-income, and most students in the band and orchestra learn an instrument for the first time once they arrive at the school. Antos doesn’t let these statistics deter him. He discovers what they enjoy and then structures his curriculum and classroom activities to align with those interests. “When students contribute to the design of the educational landscape, learning happens organically,” he says.
He has had students earn full rides to competitive music schools and Ivy League universities who go on to become professional musicians or music educators. “On the same token, I have also had students struggle to produce a beautiful sound on their instruments for the longest time to then one day FINALLY be able to play with great tone quality,” Antos says. “In the end, the accolade means less to me than the sense of accomplishment.”
Antos’ musical advocacy goes beyond Eisenhower High School, Saint Xavier University and Trinity Christian College. He donated the honorarium he received as a top 10 finalist for the Grammy Music Educator Award in 2021 to Advocate Children’s Hospital of Oak Lawn’s music therapy department. The hospital provided a wish list of instruments, and Antos purchased hand drums, Gato boxes, wood blocks and pitched handheld instruments.
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Director of Bands
Heritage Middle School
After the isolation created by the pandemic, many students “craved a place where they can unwind and express themselves,” says David Amos. “And band might be the only class in which they feel that is possible.”
Amos finds creative ways to introduce his students at Heritage Middle School to the many facets of music. He started a nine-week “Careers in Music” class that looks at various non-performing careers in the music industry. “Students learn about music journalists, concert planners, promotors, radio DJs and sound production,” Amos says. The class also explores job descriptions and the necessary training and qualifications for each position. Throughout the course, students “create songs in AB, ABA and verse-chorus form to learn how the music they hear on Spotify and TikTok is made.”
Painesville is located within a primarily middle-class county, but more than 85% of the Painesville City Local Schools’ students qualify for free and reduced lunch. To allow students to participate in band, 70% of students use school-owned instruments. In spite of these challenges, the PCLS band program is the third largest in the county.
More than half of the district’s population is Hispanic and Latino, and a quarter of the students are identified as English language learners. Amos works hard to include “music pieces that are comprised of folk melodies representative of the cultures in my classroom.”
For the 2021 winter concert, his band performed a piece called “Kwanzaa Celebration” that included a Liberian folk melody and the famous spiritual “Kum ba yah.” Amos and his students looked at the cultures and traditions represented in the music while learning to perform the songs. “I would love to see more middle school repertoire written by composers of color or queer-identified composers. Authentic representation of diverse individuals and the cultures they represent is extremely important to the growth of all students,” he says.
Amos always finds ways to “push students to be a better version of themselves as an individual and in music,” according to one of his students.
“Remember, music is worth it. … While music is the content we teach, our first goal must be to teach students the skills they need to be successful in this changing world,” Amos says.
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Director of Bands, Assistant Professor of Music
University of Northwestern St. Paul
St. Paul, Minnesota
At University of Northwestern St. Paul (UNW), Cassandra Bechard oversees several bands and ensembles that are diverse in musical backgrounds (including music majors/minors and non-music majors/minors) that come together to create exhilarating concerts. “What I am most proud of is not only the level of music-making, but the community building that the ensembles strive for,” she says. “Band rehearsals end at dinner hour on campus, and as a result there are daily band dinners. The community aspect of the program is strong and filled with kindness, care, respect and love for each other — it’s a very special program.”
Bechard plans to add an honor band day, something she started when she worked at the University of Dubuque in Iowa, where she saw an opportunity for more university-sponsored honor bands in the region. She collaborated with her colleagues in the fine and performing arts department and admissions to create an annual high school honor band day. Students are nominated by their band directors and if selected, they have a day full of rehearsals, a campus tour and a free concert that is open to the public. Bechard says that the University of Northwestern St. Paul will host its first high school honor band day in January 2023.
Prior to joining the faculty at UNW, Bechard taught high school band in South Dakota and encountered a common problem that she and her colleagues around the state faced — finding appropriate repertoire that fit the instrumentation of their ensembles. She tackled this problem head on, and during her doctoral degree, she focused her research on finding and cataloging repertoire for small wind chamber ensembles (8 to 16 players) that are at or below the grade level of IV. Bechard reached out to composers to write music, and she continues to support this area of research through presentations with her colleague, Dr. Melanie Brooks, from Winona State University and by joining consortiums for adaptable music.
Bechard’s proudest moments as a music educator is when former students connect with her to share their accomplishments. “What a privilege to be thought of and sought out to share exciting news with years after they have left my rehearsal space — there is nothing better,” she says.
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Director of Mariachi Studies
Las Vegas High School
Las Vegas, Nevada
In 2018, Clark County School District welcomed a new mariachi program to Las Vegas High School. This program was “founded for a community that embodies what it truly means to be American, and its members have stepped up to show their families what the American Dream can really look like,” says Stephen Blanco, who was tapped to lead this new program.
In the years since its inception, the group, called Mariachi Joya, has grown and experienced tremendous success, including performing “La Tierra del Mariachi” for the virtual Parade Across America for the 2020 inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. “We hadn’t seen each other in nearly a year, so the inauguration performance was taped and recorded in seclusion,” Blanco says. “The school gave us special permission to meet in the gym to watch the inauguration. Standing back and seeing my students watching their hard work … well, there is no greater feeling in the world!”
Blanco says that Mariachi Joya “isn’t a normal class that performs four to five times a year. They perform nearly 100 times a year,” including events with Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak. The group recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to perform for the Mexican Embassy and to meet with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.
Blanco spent his first week in Las Vegas at Music Education Consultants’ mariachi conference learning implementation strategies and stylistic nuances of mariachi music. Blanco created a five-year plan that included all the needed materials, curriculum and marketing strategies for the program. He says, “We are now ending year four of that five-year plan, and things are going great!”
Mariachi is more than a specialized ensemble at Las Vegas High School. “My students consistently give me reasons to be proud of them, whether it be laughs during rehearsal or them performing for sold-out crowds of thousands of people,” Blanco says.
According to one of his students, Blanco tells them to “rock that stage no matter where we are at and to release energy into the crowd.” Blanco and his students rally before every performance because they know that they have a job to do. “Every person in the audience is expecting a show, and we give them the best show they’ve ever seen,” Blanco says.
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Music Education Coordinator,
Assistant Professor of Music
Tennessee State University
A third-generation music educator, Robert Bryant grew up singing in church and playing several instruments at a young age. “I always knew the power that music had in shaping identity and inspiring hope,” he says.
His passion for teaching others started as a high school drum major and section leader, and in college, that passion became more focused — Bryant wanted to work and serve in those areas that need him the most: marginalized and often forgotten communities of color. While working in urban areas like metro Atlanta and in rural settings like Americus, Georgia, Bryant “found my voice and purpose as a teacher by working with students who I saw a piece of myself in and who saw a piece of themselves in me.” At Tennessee State University (TSU), he helps his students find their voice and gives them the strategies, tools and techniques that will help them thrive as music teachers.
Prior to working at the collegiate level, Bryant worked as a band director at Miller Grove High School and Stockbridge Middle School where he increased enrollment in band by at least 20%. He also had his bands participate in solo and ensemble festivals for the first time.
“I am a data-driven teacher with a personalized approach for each and every student,” Bryant says. “Many of my students have made district and all-state ensembles, and my high school senior classes regularly amassed more than $1 million in music scholarship offers at colleges and universities throughout the country.”
In addition to his work at TSU, Bryant is a guest lecturer and capstone supervisor for the master’s in curriculum and instruction degree at Florida A&M University, his alma mater. “It is my goal to work with these students to help them continue their education, transform their knowledge and experiences into research-based and data-driven instructional praxis, open their eyes to the possibilities they have with a graduate degree, and help them develop curricula and instructional techniques that allow them be better teachers to their students, as well as leaders within their school,” he says.
Bryant credits his “truly awesome” students for his success. “They have allowed me to push them when others had relegated them to lowered expectations and did not believe in their greatness,” he says. “They have embraced my ideas and approaches that sometimes were different and outside of their experience.”
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Education Through Music — Massachusetts
Adam Calus builds relationships wherever he goes. He founded the music program at Charlestown High School and after six years there, he moved to become executive director of Education Through Music — Massachusetts (ETM-MA) so he could create more music programs for Boston Public Schools (BPS), especially at the many district schools that do not have them.
ETM-MA is a nonprofit that is committed to keeping music alive in all Massachusetts schools, starting in Boston. The organization partners with principals to create, strengthen and sustain music programs for schools that currently do not have them; and makes music a core subject in its partner schools. Calus says that another ETM-MA goal is to use music as a catalyst to support learning in other areas, including overall general development, motivation toward school and attendance, parent engagement and community investment in the school.
Presently, Calus oversees the development of three new music programs for BPS at Brighton High School, Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School and he supports the BPS music teacher at David A. Ellis Elementary School.
Through his prior role as a public school music educator, and his current work at ETM-MA and as a private music instructor, Calus talks and listens to his students, their parents, music teachers and the community. When it comes to repertoire, Calus recommends having a simple conversation with students and their families. “The music that students love and connect with should be one of the core components that drives a lot of learning,” he says. “Parents and students appreciate that they have agency in what happens in the music learning space. The music that students know and love is already inside of them. Parents and students enjoy when the music space taps into that love in order to learn and become proficient musically.”
He uses that same relationship-building model to find performance opportunities around Boston. “Students should get out into their community and make music regularly because that’s what musicians do,” Calus says. “They go out and perform in places they care about and are connected to. I talk with my students and encourage the teachers I train to do the same with regards to which community spaces mean something to them, then reach out to those spaces and find out how we can facilitate a student performance there.”
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Director of Bands
Gautier High School
Adapting to changes and being flexible have been essential for music educators during the pandemic, which Kristopher Chandler was forced to do. He came up with some creative solutions — one planned and one not — to help his music students at Gautier High School.
In the spring of 2021, Chandler hosted a Rehears-A-Thon weekend for his wind ensemble students to help them with their performance on their spring assessment literature and to reignite their fire and passion for music that was damaged during the ongoing pandemic. “We invited band directors from all over the state to lead sectionals, and had Dr. Colin McKenzie from the University of Southern Mississippi rehearse the full ensemble segment — all while remaining socially distant and wearing the necessary PPE,” Chandler says. “In total, the students and clinicians experienced approximately 12 hours of intense, yet engaging and enjoyable, learning!”
That summer, Band Camp 2021, was moved to a virtual platform after the first day because Chandler and several staff members tested positive for COVID, despite being fully vaccinated. The band staff and student leadership team devised a plan for the virtual camp including instructional videos, individual practice plans, music and marching fundamentals pass-off videos, and daily check-ins with staff and student leaders via Google Meets. “While we have a talented band staff, our incredible student leadership team was the driving force behind making our virtual band camp a success,” Chandler says.
The Gautier Band Program prides itself on operating each day as a true team, which includes four full-time band directors, one color guard coordinator and one part-time guard tech. “Our team sees every student in our program every day by teaching courses on multiple campuses,” Chandler says. “We truly complement each other and it’s a joy working with these incredible educators every day. But we cannot do our job without great students and a great educational community. The Gautier band program has high goals for the future, and we are eager to continue working!”
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Director of Music, Media, Entertainment Technology (MMET) Department
Academy for the Performing Arts
Huntington Beach High School
Huntington Beach, California
The Music, Media, Entertainment Technology (MMET) Program at Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts is personalized and student-led, “meaning our students choose a path for the year (or sometimes even the show), and each is responsible for different aspects of the production, beyond performing the songs,” says Danielle Collins, the director of the MMET department.
About 25% of the 150 students in the Pop Music Program in MMET help arrange or record their colleagues’ original songs. According to Collins, students run rehearsal blocks and sound engineer in each of the academy’s studios, as well as oversee production of each song in preparation for live performances, which include three annual mainstage rock shows (each with 12 to 15 groups performing) and three to four dozen community gigs and performances. Through community outreach by Collins and her students, MMET performances run the gamut from holiday parties, parades, street fairs, restaurants and coffee shops, and other events in Huntington Beach.
“We try to provide students as many options as they may find in the music industry, while still maintaining a level of quality,” she says. These options include recording holiday albums and original songs for which media students design music videos. “We focus on producing, recording, performing and event managing,” Collins says.
According to one of her nomination letters, Collins encourages students to try, fail and eventually succeed. Calling MMET a “program of grit,” Collins says that students hold themselves to such a high standard that failure usually isn’t an option. “We create safe opportunities for healthy fails and the space and time built into productions to recover and succeed,” she explains. “We reflect weekly and ask students to recast what they may feel is a ‘fail’ to merely a ‘try,’ and this mindset helps our students take more risks because they know they’ll be supported through the process.”
In addition to running the Pop Music Program at her school, Collins helps other music educators establish their own programs. She shares that at a previous school, she started her pop music groups during every ensemble class — for example, jazz band had a rhythm section, and those students were given class time to select and rehearse pop songs to perform. She recruited students into concert band classes, planning to have them in the pop music group. According to Collins, this initial enrollment is vital while building your program.
Collins also says that you must have your administration’s support in understanding that not all students on campus have an interest in participating in a traditional music program. “You will absolutely triple your program if you can create space for the other 80% of students on your campus who find passion in popular music.”
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Director of Choral Activities,
Fine Arts Department Chair
Wylie East High School
Described as an “empire builder,” Dr. Nathan Dame says it’s all about inspiring and enabling those around you to find musical success and to become empowered stakeholders throughout the building process. “When I accepted the position at Wylie East High School, my co-director — I am blessed to teach with my wife and better half every day! — and I built a strategic plan grounded in the musical, social and interpersonal values of what we wanted our program to look like, how we wanted our students to sing, how they would hold themselves in the school and community, and how we wanted to involve others in the process,” he says
They revisit the strategic plan each year and make necessary changes as the program grows — which it has! The program now includes 300 students in 10 choral ensembles. A third full-time choral director has been hired at Wylie, and a staff member was added to the feeder programs at the middle schools.
A key to the growth of the choral program is Dame’s recruitment and retention efforts, which are grounded in three main areas: 1) musical success, 2) visibility and 3) strong relationships with students. “I have been fortunate to work in three different schools where enrollment has tripled,” he says. “Our goal is to create an inclusive environment for all students where we create outstanding music, share it with others frequently and purposefully, and care about our students as people before musicians.”
Each year, Dame creates a theme for the choral program. The first year’s theme was “Elevate,” which focused on the development and expectations of exemplary musicianship. Subsequent themes have been “Ignite” to spark the fuel within each student, and “Odyssey” as everyone navigated the unknown challenges of the pandemic. “Breaking Ground” is this year’s theme as the choral program opens a new facility and will travel internationally for the first time.
The fine arts building expansion was supported by a bond proposal and the district administration. “Our superintendent of schools was quick to say, ‘students don’t come to school for algebra … they come to school for fine arts and other programs,’ and he put his money and actions where his mouth was,” Dame says.
The new facility has a large choir room with skylights, new computers and sound technology, recording equipment, seated risers, equipment and uniform storage, two offices and six practice rooms. Additionally, there is a specific ensemble room where three sections of classes can overlap, which are outfitted with portable risers, and pedagogical and technological tools.
“I am inspired daily with our program and what it has become,” Dame says. “After our recent winter concert, a staff member came up to our team and said, ‘You promote excellence from every student and it is so neat to see.’ This makes me so proud, and I feel that our expectation of excellence at all levels is evident in our program’s results at contests and in concert.”
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Fine Arts Music Director, SHABACH! K-8 Christian Academy
Music Director, Georgetown University Gospel Choir
“Bloom where you are planted” is Brandon Felder’s teaching philosophy. “Music represents time, and like a seed that is planted and takes root, it will sprout, grow and bloom. Music should take form and dissolve as music has the power to transform,” he says.
At SHABACH! K-8 Christian Academy, Felder makes his classroom and rehearsal room safe spaces for creativity, transparency, peace, harmony and respect where his students experience freedom of expression. “If students can feel an educator’s passion, they will gain inspiration and then work toward excellence,” he says.
Intentional music programming is something that Felder takes pride in. “It is a meticulous process in which I consider the culture of the community, sensitivities and student abilities,” he says. “I envision the end result — performances, end of semester, assessments, etc. — and what skills students need to accomplish these outcomes. Then I weave programs, concerts, recitals and formal and informal performances to support this.”
At SHABACH! and at all his previous positions, Felder first establishes involvement and connection within the school through pep rallies, assemblies, flash mobs and sporting events. Once the music program is visible at the school, he says to seek community involvement and performance opportunities in the community, first at locations (senior homes, hospitals, churches, nursing homes, malls and shopping centers, sporting events and city government events) within a 5-mile-radius of the school. As the school’s music program grows, continue to expand its footprint in 5-mile increments.
“Just as chicken makes its own gravy and bacon makes its own grease, I want to create musical citizens who are a product of my experiences,” Felder says. “I consider myself a teaching artist who continually fuels my own creative experiences through personal performance and objective opportunities. Once I am charged artistically and creatively, it is my responsibility as a music educator to provide innovation and fresh ideas to the classroom experience for students to expand outside of the four walls of the traditional classroom mindset.”
Felder is also the music director of the Georgetown University Gospel Choir. “I oversee the talented student singers who celebrate their spirituality through song and support Protestant Ministry services and special campus events while singing diverse musical selections,” he says.
In addition to his work at SHABACH! and Georgetown University, Felder serves on the GRAMMY Recording Academy Board, Washington, D.C. Chapter and its D.C. Education Committee, which identifies top programs across the region as well as recognizes economically underserved schools and their efforts in music education.
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Artistic Director, We Are Nashville Festival
Learning Technology Specialist
Metro Nashville Public Schools
We Are Nashville is an annual music festival for Nashville area vocal and instrumental programs that takes place in March, during Music in Our Schools Month. Music programs are invited for a “Day of Music,” which was housed this year at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Nashville.
“My heart behind the event is to expose students and young aspiring musicians to the array of opportunities that exist in music,” says Bryson Finney, the festival’s artistic director, coordinator and co-founder. “Providing this enriching platform for students can be life-changing. I believe a dream needs three essential steps to grow: 1) exposure (see the artistry), 2) identification (workshop opportunities/learning experiences) and 3) action (joint performance opportunities). This not only plants seeds but also builds our city’s artistic community.”
Finney spent the first nine years of his career as a general music, piano and choir instructor at an elementary school. After earning his master’s degree, Finney embraced music tech and digital music composition and became a Metro Nashville Public Schools learning technology instructional coach. He led district-wide professional development opportunities supporting technology integration. He also worked with the Nashville Symphony as the Accelerando Program coordinator, equipping students from diverse ethinic backgrounds for careers in music.
During the pandemic, Finney worked with the CMA Foundation’s United Voices for Music Education Initiative and collaborated with music educators nationwide, collecting innovative ideas for the music classroom.
Finney returned to Metro Nashville Public School as a Learning Technology Specialist and works with educators to integrate district-approved digital tools and applications into instruction. “Most of my school-based work happens with our elementary schools and involves consultations with school leadership, school-wide/grade-level trainings, co-teaching and modeling,” he says.
The We Are Nashville Festival clearly holds a special place in Finney’s heart. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for exposure, education and engagement with student ensembles and local artists,” he says. In 2020,
In 2020, a We Are Nashville video project was created in collaboration with the Nashville Symphony and its Accelerando Program, which received a 2021 Regional Emmy. Finney was the songwriter.
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Director of Bands, Jeaga Middle School
West Palm Beach, Florida
Executive Director, Hope Symphony INC
Alain Goindoo created Hope Symphony to provide access to music, tools and resources to children and families from communities in need. “I wanted to bring hope for the future and level the playing field,” he says. “Hope Symphony brings together a village of difference-makers who provide essential resources, equipment, personnel, camps and life-changing opportunities that would otherwise pass by these children due to lack of access.”
The Hope Symphony Summer Band Camp was established in 2017 and serves approximately 100 Title I students. “The purpose of the camp is to promote more than music proficiency — the camp generates excitement for learning and gives hope for their future one note at a time,” Goindoo says.
Students at camp receive music lessons from qualified instructors, free food, method books and equipment. They engage in successful learning on a college campus with their peers. The camp experience provides college readiness skills and establishes the idea that the pursuit of a higher education is a reality and something that they can achieve.
In a “40 Under 40” nomination letter, Goindoo, who is also Jeaga Middle School’s band director, is described as a nurturer who is touted for putting children who live in communities affected by drugs and gun violence on a “completely alternate trajectory thanks to music.”
“We create a safe space for students to learn and grow, as well as set goals that give them ownership, a sense of pride, value in themselves and their work, and, most importantly, a place to belong,” Goindoo says. “As music teachers, we find our students’ passion for music and nurture that passion through developing effective rigorous programming, building healthy and meaningful relationships, teamwork, leadership development, setting goals, learning to never give up and preparing them for college readiness — all this on top of building music proficiency!”
Goindoo has raised more than $380,000 in grants to support music education. “I pray, then I work diligently outside of school hours writing grants, raising awareness and building community relationships with parents, local universities, city and county officials, and nonprofit organizations to meet the needs of the children. After explaining the needs and showing how the resources will be used, most people want to help,” he says.
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Director of Bands
Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts
Magnet Middle School
When the world went into lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jayme Hayes tackled online learning with gusto. “I became a content-creating maniac,” she said. “Resources like method books, online theory tools, even YouTube instructional videos were not made for 100% online teaching, and that was the biggest problem I faced at first. I realized I needed to create content that matched my program and me as a teacher. I created practice and assessment tools with Boom Cards, YouTube and Flipgrid for almost every lesson.”
Much of what Hayes learned, experienced and taught during remote and hybrid teaching has now become a central part of her classroom at Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts Magnet Middle School. She effectively reaches students at their level of understanding by providing more resources and chances for them to succeed. “I still incorporate online tools like Boom, Flipgrid and YouTube, but they are more spread out throughout the week or quarter,” she says. “We use iPads for composition projects, tuning activities, aural skills activities and listening evaluation. Students are given multiple opportunities to show their level of proficiency as we learn and develop music skills.”
She was so adept at teaching remotely that the Kansas Music Educators Association (KMEA) asked her to speak at its virtual convention. Her presentation focused on how virtual teaching did not have to be any less effective, impactful or educational than in-person teaching. “It was a session about our mindset when it came to teaching online,” Hayes explains. “We were/are still educators who are passionate about our students and music. I refused to allow the screen to remove that from my classroom, and I tried to empower others to do the same. I do not teach music to young people, I teach young people through music. A camera wasn’t going to stop me from doing that.”
How did Hayes find ways for students to make music remotely? “With comic relief mixed in with high expectations, honesty and transparency,” she says.
Each quarter had a theme and everything was planned around that theme. Hayes used poems and children’s books to learn about improvisation, composition, teamwork and performance. “Every day we played with recordings, metronomes, call and response, singing and playing,” she says. “We played interactive games using rhythms and our instruments like charades, Pictionary, Clue and a very creative version of Among Us that I got from the Band Directors Facebook page because there are other teachers who are a lot more creative than me.”
Hayes admits that honesty was the biggest part of the shared creativity with her students. “I told the kids that I was trying my best with these new crazy ideas, and they were eager to try them out,” she says.
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Director of Bands,
Associate Professor of Music,
Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania
Jonathan Helmick’s booming laugh will draw you in — and you’ll be glad that it did because this thoughtful and caring music educator has established a welcoming culture at Slippery Rock University. “Part of establishing that culture is living it,” he says. “I take time to get to know my students and meet their parents and family. I also try to intentionally engineer a culture within the program where current students reach out and connect to first-year members.”
Helmick teaches more than musical skills and knowledge. “It is my responsibility to curate a space where students have the opportunity to grow in the area of their dispositions and embrace vulnerability,” he says. He emphasizes this point by telling his students to “hug the cactus, embrace the vulnerability.“
Helmick explains, “As musicians, we understand how vulnerable it is to make music. Encouraging students to take healthy risks, step into the spotlight and actively own their trajectory and growth always run parallel to the curriculum on paper.”
He also tells students to see music as a game with purpose and to focus on building skills, confidence, independence, self-efficacy that transfers to all facets of their lives.
During the pandemic, Helmick surveyed his students on how to stay connected with each other when they were completely apart. One topic overwhelmingly captured their interest: diversity in the wind band. During the rest of the spring semester, Helmick and his students explored music by diverse composers and music that was connected to themes of diversity.
“When the semester was over, students wrote to me explaining that this unit provided them with the first opportunity to see themselves in much of the music that they listened to and performed,” Helmick says. “This was particularly true for LGBTQ2S+ students.”
Helmick went a step further for the fall 2020 semester and gave the SRU Symphonic Wind Ensemble a special project. “They were to analyze the content of our library to see if the composers in our library proportionally mirrored our ensemble and society,” he says. “The students went so far as to compare the demographics of our music building, campus and country to the composers listed in our library.”
The results of this project are being leveraged to write grants to commission underrepresented composers to write for SRU’s ensemble, “giving our students actionable ways to meaningfully impact equitable programming practices,” Helmick says.
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Director of Bands
San Elijo Middle School
San Marcos, California
A student in the San Elijo Middle School (SEMS) band described Anastasia Homes as “strict but chill” — and she considers that high praise, indeed. “I have high expectations and standards, but I am always there to encourage the kids, help them through it and try to make light of the mistakes,” she says. “Kids have so much stress these days, music should be a place where they can enjoy being creative and develop skills to a level of their desire. My goal as a music teacher is to teach them about what it is to be a good person through music and give them a lifelong appreciation for the arts.”
Homes has found creative ways to instill music appreciation in her students. She worked with percussion coach Zachary Elliott to start a world music course, an after-school percussion class that meets once a week. In the class, which is supported by an expanded learning opportunities (ELO) grant, students pick out instruments and music to expand on music elements from other parts of the world. “The kids are working on an African piece right now that they plan to perform at a percussion festival later this year,” Homes says.
Homes saw how well a mentorship program worked for the band at San Marcos High School and worked with the high school band director, Geoff Radant, to develop a step-by-step plan to integrate the mentorship program at the middle school. Homes and her co-director, Shannon McInnis, created outlines for students to follow that included how to first contact their mentee, things they could work on in meetings and just how to break the ice. “High school students mentored our 7th graders, and 8th graders mentored our 6th graders,” she explains. “We tried to pair kids based on personality and instruments. All students volunteered their time and met when it worked for them. It is still a small element in our program, but my hope is that in years to come we can make it something even better. The students involved love meeting with older kids to hang out and improve their playing.”
Homes credits the entire community — administration, fellow teachers, directors throughout the district and parents — for her program’s success. “Our program at SEMS is amazing not just because of one person, but many,” she says. “This is a special place, and I feel lucky every day that I am here, inspiring our musicians to do their best and have fun.”
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Director of Bands
Thomas W. Harvey High School
Amir Jones opens the doors for his students at Thomas W. Harvey High School to experience success. “Some of our students come from challenging socioeconomic situations, but this does not stop them from achieving at top levels and rising to every challenge,” he says. “When a student enters this program, they are given the best opportunity we can offer despite what other obstacles they may experience outside of our program.”
Jones makes this possible by taking a lot of the financial burden away from band families. More than 80% of his students are provided with instruments from the district, and the band fundraises as much as possible to help students travel. “We have a group of alumni that gives back through our booster program to help provide additional lessons and instruction so that students who may have a difficult time getting private lessons still have access,” Jones says.
When Jones started at Harvey High, he approached everything “as if we were a larger, more affluent ensemble,” he explains. “We started to travel yearly, we play music that pushed our limits, we purchased quality equipment, we performed on our local news and participated in as many performances as possible.”
Jones’ emphasis on recruitment and experiences has paid off. “The first time we performed at Large Group Contest, we received a superior rating,” Jones says. “As we continue to move forward, we hope to perform at the state level as well as at professional development conferences.”
To address more advanced players in the band, Jones started an Honors Band, which was “initially a volunteer group that met after school,” Jones says. “Then the Honors Band turned into the Wind Ensemble, and the 35 to 50 students in this ensemble play more difficult music and earn honors credit. My top goal for this band is to help students push themselves musically and play high-quality music at levels they have not experienced before.”
Jones is thankful for his community — from district administrators and parents to his music staff, colleagues and local band directors — for their overwhelming support of the arts. He regularly collaborates will all of them “as we continue to find ways to best serve our students.”
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Director of Bands and Orchestras
Ironwood Ridge High School
Oro Valley, Arizona
Damon Knepper is described as the “king of calm,” which he says comes from watching his favorite leaders and teachers remain strong in the face of adversity. “Remaining strong doesn’t mean ignoring the problem or brushing it aside, but rather to be the rock for your students so that they have somebody to latch onto in times of crisis,” he explains.
Knepper had to rely on this inner strength when he and his program suffered a tragic lost in April 2021 when his brother, Nicholas, who was a percussion director at Ironwood Ridge High School passed away from complications from epilepsy. “I got through this — the most tragic event I have ever faced — by being authentic and vulnerable with my students,” he says. “During this time of immense grief, I needed them as much as they needed me. If students were sad and wanted to talk, I provided a safe and calm place for them to do so.”
Knepper has been a rock at Ironwood since he completed his student teaching there in spring 2016. During this learning period, he formed relationships with students, parents and other teachers in the department, which made the transition to becoming part of the faculty as a percussion director much easier. He then worked alongside Mark Hodge as associate director bands before taking over the program this year.
“The bands culture was already healthy, but I am a believer in reinventing oneself every so often,” he says. “The biggest changes I made this first year as director of bands was a major rebranding of our music programs with a new logo and push to be more visible in our community because it’s the 20th anniversary of our school. I am only in year one of this process, but it has really reinvigorated my students about being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Knepper has brought a unique creativity to Ironwood. “I arrange and compose much of the perfomed music for my pageantry arts ensembles, including marching band and indoor percussion,” Knepper says. “The collaborative design process is one of my absolute favorite parts of my job!”
Two years ago, the show for the indoor percussion team was based on the life cycle of the agave plant. “The Arizona agave plants’ lifecycle is incredibly beautiful, but sadly, it dies shorty after blooming,” Knepper explains. They performed Bon Iver’s 22 (OVER_s∞∞n), which is about “the fragility of one’s existence and how life could be over at any moment, which resonated with our students and audiences throughout the competitive season,” Knepper says.
He also is on a constant quest to find new sounds for his students. “I am a huge fan of choosing repertoire that exposes my ensembles to extended techniques on their instruments,” he says. “Bowing metallic instruments, muting/muffling surfaces and running live instruments through filters in DAWs [digital audio workstations] are frequent occurrences in my music classroom. I want to expose my students to 21st century technology and how musicians use these tools to enhance their performances. I want my students to be able to not only record themselves, but manipulate sounds to expand their creative sound palettes as artists.”
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Composer, Conductor, Clinician
Despite many ups and downs health-wise during the last six years, including some that have taken Katie O’Hara LaBrie away from the classroom, she has remained committed to advocating for music education. “Whether I’m mentoring a fellow teacher, Zooming with an orchestra across the country, creating content for a conference presentation, writing music for colleagues or creating guides to learning, I have kept the creative nature and the spirit of music education close at hand, despite my physical setbacks,” she says. “In some ways, having my own physical hurdles has kept me open to others in a unique way. Understanding that you never truly know what’s going on in someone’s day or someone’s life is a valuable lesson that has changed how I approach students and situations over time.”
When the pandemic started, LaBrie’s band director husband was looking for materials to use during distance learning. “I came up with ‘Distance Duets,’ which is a set of five progressive duets from grades 1 to 4,” she explains. “The idea was to let students create ensemble-based music when live ensembles weren’t possible. Students could record and play along with their own recording or share with a friend. I gave these compositions away for free and was excited to see students from elementary through high school using them both during the start of the pandemic and today.”
At the same time, LaBrie wrote “Epic Quest,” which was commissioned by the Fairfax Arts Coalition for Education in memory of Larry Ferris, who ran the county’s Instruments for All program. “This is a flexible recruitment piece that goes along with a story, ideal for encouraging new young musicians, with versions written for different ensemble types and levels,” LaBrie says.
Early in LaBrie’s career, she discovered that music students often don’t know how to practice, so she put together strategies to help students achieve “OMGs” (Obtainable Musical Goals). “Over time, I developed a method of practicing that focused on quality over quantity which created vast improvement of students’ understanding of the fundamentals of music as well as marked improvement in our rehearsals,” she says.
She then worked with her band colleague, Tracy Magwire, to further develop practice strategies with “The Big IDEA” (which stands for Identify, Decide, Execute and Analyze). They created a website of free resources to share with the music community at practicewithpurpose.net.
“One of the keys to teaching The Big IDEA is to teach the concepts in chunks and provide background knowledge,” LaBrie explains. “Through our resources we ease students into learning how to practice with purpose step by step. One of my big goals as a music educator is to share! Share music, share ideas, share resources.”
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Director of Bands, Fine Arts Department Chair
Verrado High School
Harmony is Tracy Meldrum’s superpower, according to one of her nomination letters. Like “a composer arranging notes to create rhythms, chords and melodies, Tracy wields harmony to create symphonies of great people. She champions her students to harmonize their originality, voices and talents into a dynamic ensemble of unison,” the letter states.
“It is extremely important to me that we all are accepting of each other above everything else. It’s okay if a couple of people don’t get along, that’s normal; but they MUST respect one another,” Meldrum says. “It is important to me that I am helping to raise good humans who are kind to each other and who realize they are a part of something larger than themselves. I think coming together in music is a wonderful vehicle to help teach all those other life lessons in addition to their musical education.”
Her students have definitely heard and understand her message. This year, Meldrum’s drumline was warming up before a football game, and they invited the other team’s drumline to warm up with them. “I love to see them accepting each other and other bands with open arms and kindness. That’s when I know I’m getting through,” she says.
A tradition for the Verrado High School band is singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” after every performance. Meldrum explains that for their first competitive marching band season, they played several Simon and Garfunkel songs, and that particular ballad conveys a timeless message. “I really wanted a song that would be truly meaningful to the kids no matter what year they were a part of the program, but also one that would hold sentimental value throughout the history of the entire program,” she says. “Now, all alumni and staff can come together and sing, and it is beyond powerful, and so special.”
Meldrum believes that music should not be an elitist program, so she has implemented several ways to offset band costs. In addition to fundraisers where students sell things like chocolate and sponsorships where donors are mentioned in programs or on banners, Meldrum started a “student X” fund. “Sometimes parents will donate a little extra to go where I want it to go, and I will put it into ‘student X,’ so if someone is coming up a little short, I have the means to help them,” she says.
Meldrum has also taken advantage of Arizona’s tax credit program where residents can indicate that they want their tax credit money ($200 for individuals or $400 if filing jointly) to go to their school and even to a specific program and a specific student. She created a form letter that students can slightly edit and send to their family and neighbors. “We have done ‘mailing days’ where I provide envelopes and return envelopes, and students provide stamps and addresses. We stuff envelopes with the letters, proper forms and return envelopes and send them out,” she says.
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Artist Faculty of Piano
Omaha Conservatory of Music
As a private piano instructor, Tammy Miller has found a unique way for her students to feel like they are part of a larger musical community. “Each year, I do a studio challenge that each of my students participate in,” Miller says. “I teach an average of 40 students who range in age from 4-78! The yearly studio challenge is an extra special aspect of their experience in my studio, and it increases their excitement toward learning and provides added engagement in their music lessons!”
For this year’s challenge, “Piano Olympics,” students participate in a different Piano Olympic event each month. September was a practice challenge where students were given an individual 30-day practice chart. “If they practiced 30 days, they earned a gold medal that they write their name on and post on my studio wall; 20 to 29 days of practice earned silver, and 10 to 19 days was bronze,” Miller explains.
October was music history where students listened to four different episodes that Miller pre-selected on the Classics for Kids website and completed the activity/quiz. During November, or “Note-vember,” students came up with a new mnemonic device for the lines and spaces on the treble and bass clef. Piano Olympics will continue through May with upcoming events on sight-reading, rhythm, improvisation, technique, etc. “To date, everyone in the studio has participated in every Piano Olympics challenge and earned at least a bronze medal,” Miller proudly proclaims
In addition to her private piano lessons, Miller serves as the artist faculty representative to the Omaha Conservatory of Music board of directors for the next two academic years. “This role allows me to be a voice for the faculty and give feedback to the board to assist with their strategic planning efforts and improvements or new programs/offerings within the organization,” Miller says. As an artist faculty representative, Miller participates on the Educational Programming and Community Outreach Committees, which allows her to work a little closer with the directors of both committees on how the organization can have a greater impact on students at the conservatory and throughout the Omaha Metro area.
Miller is also the founder and president of the National Composers Orchestra (NCO), the first professional musical ensemble and chamber music series in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the artistic director and founder of the NCO Chamber Music Series that operates in partnership with St. Paul’s Conservatory of Music. “The goal of the Chamber Music Series is to promote the music of living composers and provide immediate access to high-quality musical performances for the Council Bluffs community and the students at St. Paul’s Conservatory of Music,” Miller says. “In addition to high-quality live performances, students and audience members have the opportunity to meet and talk with guest artists and composers in a post-concert meet and greet.”
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Project Music is so much more than just an after-school music program. “We are cultivating change makers through music,” says Executive Director Gabrielle Molina. The program is open to young music students in the Stamford, Connecticut, area and includes free instruments, music instructions, mentorship and opportunities to perform.
“I’m most excited about our newest initiative that we are calling our ‘Learn & Earn Program’ where we train and pay our student leaders to help around Project Music,” Molina says. “These jobs include music librarian, equipment manager, speaker and tour guide for guests, a performance track and so many more. The students have to interview, present a resume, work on a budget for how they will use their money, and learn skills that will be directly translatable to college or a job.”
Prior to being named executive director, Molina was program director and focused on embedding Project Music even further into the community and working alongside other community partners that care about the kids, community development, education and the arts. “Now as executive director, I have to think about our sustainability and future positioning of the organization as we continue to grow and evolve to meet the needs of our community,” she says.
Currently, Project Music serves more than 100 students, but Molina’s goal is to more than double enrollment to 250+ through growing partnerships in the community. “I really believe that you have to meet students where they are, but with that being said, you have to also show them where they can go, all the possibilities that are open to them if they work and are ready to tackle challenges,” she says.
The approach Molina takes at Project Music is: If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. “We — and I say we because I don’t do this alone, this truly is a together effort — have engaged more community partners and asked ‘how can we get involved, how can we enroll more students?’ There’s so much great work being done in our community, so it’s really just about finding a way to work together because we all ultimately want to see a better, brighter community and future,” she says.
Molina also founded Teaching Artists International (TAI), a nonprofit whose mission is to “develop global citizen musicians that support music education around the world,” according to its website. TAI partners with music institutions worldwide to provide teaching artists residency opportunities to travel, perform and teach.
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Associate Director of Vocal Performance, Coordinator of Vocal Pedagogy
New York University — The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development
New York, New York
Taking a class taught by Justin John Moniz is an experience you won’t soon forget. “I work to create a classroom environment that in many ways parallels that of a theater. I rehearse my lectures, tech my visual aids and spend considerable time working through my pacing and transitions,” he says. “I venture to create interactive, thoughtful and immersive pedagogical experiences, which enable students to take an ‘intermission’ from the outside world in order to discover their truest potential.”
The vocal pedagogy program at New York University (NYU) — The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development is unique because it explores the “intersection of psychological health, the arts and communication,” Moniz says. “Our work enables us to build bridges and connect people around the globe by way of vocal music and individual expression.”
Moniz started the NYU Steinhardt Vocal Pedagogy Outreach Program to provide a platform for his graduate students to put their theoretical work into practice by working and engaging with disadvantaged communities across the state.
“The mission of the program parallels that of NYU Steinhardt: To advance the education, health and well-being of people and communities around the world. We achieve this by fostering knowledge, creativity and innovation at the crossroads of culture, education and human development,” he explains. “The graduate students in the vocal pedagogy program devised five unique workshops surrounding the themes of vocal efficiency and sustainability, technique versus style and vocal health. Each of the workshops engaged students in various virtual modalities.”
Moniz plans to continue to develop the vocal pedagogy program, and “I hope to broaden our reach by facilitating workshops with a growing number of geographically, culturally and economically disadvantaged communities across New York State,” he says.
Observing the impact of his teaching and mentorship when his students find success in their own teaching, research or performance pursuits “inspires me to be a bigger, bolder and braver lifelong learner myself,” Moniz says.
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Music Teacher, Choir Director
Central Falls High School
Central Falls, Rhode Island
Bryant Montalvo was teaching abroad when the COVID-19 pandemic started, and he knew it was time to come home. When the opportunity to begin a new choral program at Central Falls High School presented itself, he couldn’t pass it up — even though his classes would be taught 100% remotely. “Most students who were on my class roster didn’t even know that music was being offered! Because of distance learning, creating traditional music ensembles was not feasible, so I created and developed the current curricula for Music Composition and Music Production classes solely around music technology to give my students an immediate, hands-on learning experience with music,” Montalvo explains.
In Music Composition 1 and 2, students utilize music notation software to build the necessary foundational skills of music literacy. Students create their own melodies and compositions and with the software’s playback capabilities, they can immediately hear what their work sounds like on various instruments.
In Music Production, students learn how to use a digital audio workstation to create their own beats, loops, remixes and original work through solo and collaborative tasks. The class also listens to and analyzes pop, hip-hop and current top-chart songs. “By utilizing the music that is currently streamed into the headphones of my students, the music room becomes a student-led learning environment,” Montalvo says. “I designed this course to be project based, so each student has useful, lifelong skills as well as a digital portfolio of work to share.”
Watch this fun YouTube video that Montalvo made at the end of the last school year where he raps about the new music courses!
Central Falls is a Title I school where the majority of students are immigrants. Montalvo tells his classes that “in music, it takes everybody. You cannot leave a single person out when creating music, and everyone has to work together,” he says. He builds community among his students by ensuring that everyone learns and uses others’ names in the classroom to ensure that all students feel valued and respected. Montalvo’s students also drive their own learning and select repertoire they want to work on.
Montalvo also uses movement activities and games (which, Montalvo says, aren’t reserved for elementary students). “My high school students love a challenge when they have to work together, such as games that require beat making, keeping time and collaboration,” he says.
The music program at Central Falls was started thanks to a portion of ESSER funds granted to the school. Montalvo also applied for five grants in the last year — and received all of them. “One of the grants we received was from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and National Association for Music Education (NAfME) to start a new Tri-M Music Honor Society Chapter,” Montalvo says. “I am excited to be the first music teacher at Central Falls High School to induct students into this honor society this year at honors night.”
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Director of Bands
Forney High School
Cody Newman says his daily calling is empowering students to be in the band program. “It is so important to give away the reins to our young leaders as they will soon be given the reins to determine the direction of their lives and the lives of their future families,” the director of band says. “What more important job do I have than to empower young people to rise to overcome the challenges they will encounter?”
The goal of the band leadership team at Forney High School is to create “a culture of unity through selflessness, positivity and encouragement,” Newman says. “When our students strive to accomplish these things, our music and performance goals are simply byproducts of their true success.”
In 2021, Forney High was in the news because Micah Diffee, a student in a wheelchair, wanted to join the band. “Micah is exceptionally capable and any issues he came across were solved by him and his friend around him,” Newman says. “There is, of course, the feel-good story about Micah, but what was much more important were the day-to-day operations that the rest of the students took part in with him. My hope is that the students who were Micah’s bandmates see people differently in the future. I hope that they won’t focus on perceived disabilities, but rather on the opportunities. It was a daily inspiration watching the students all working together.”
Inspiration and spreading positivity are reverberating themes in Newman’s program. After a great performance, instead of listing off all the accomplishments that the band has had, Newman decided this year to use that time to continue to spread the message that the Forney band directors teach daily. They recite Longfellow’s poem, “The Arrow and the Song,” which is about “the importance of words,” Newman explains. “Some words stick with you and hurt you like the arrow, while other words build you up and are carried in your heart like a song. This message is so important and helpful to the daily operations and culture within our program that I thought, why not continue to spread that message like wildflower seeds at each venue we participate in throughout the fall season.”
Newman knows that he lives a charmed life. “I have been so blessed to have been a part of several incredible teams of directors that molded and shaped me into the teacher I am today. I look at directors I get to work with daily and recognize that I get to do this with them. I look at these students and recognize that I get to do this with them. I look at my young family and beautiful wife and realize that I get to do this with them. The ‘them’ is very important to me.”
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University of California, Riverside
If you’re a student at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and have an interest in taiko drumming, just talk to Terry Nguyen! “Even though the UCR Taiko Ensemble is listed as a music ensemble in the Department of Music, anyone can join regardless of their major,” Nguyen says. “There are no audition requirements. Students are not required to have any prior musical experience. If they come to me with an open mind and a willingness to learn, then I will teach them!”
Nguyen is an alumnus of UCR, its Taiko Ensemble and Senryu Taiko (a student taiko drumming group). “I am not too far removed from the time that taiko started in Riverside,” she explains. “I am still in contact with the folks who laid the groundwork for taiko at UCR. It’s crucial to know this history, to have the first-hand experiences and to transmit the knowledge.”
Currently, Nguyen’s main focus is the UCR Taiko Ensemble, which is academic, and TaikoMix, a community-based performing ensemble that educates the public about the history and performance of taiko. “The majority of TaikoMix members are UCR and Senryu Taiko alumni, so it’s fun to have this living history that keeps growing each year,” Nguyen says. “The organizations support one another through sharing resources like taiko equipment and repertoire.”
Nguyen’s taiko class met off campus for nearly three years as she waited for the on-campus facility, The Barn Theater, to be renovated. Then came the pandemic. During the 2020-2021 fall quarter, some instructors were presented with an option of submitting worksite plans to offer in-person classes. The Barn’s renovation and expansion had just been completed that summer, so Nguyen formulated a plan that allowed her taiko class to convene in-person while also livestreaming for a synchronous class. Students who opted to come to class at the Barn complied with the strict sanitization protocols, including wearing masks and distancing themselves from one another. “As one of the first taiko/music ensembles to resume in-person rehearsals, I have shared the worksite plan with a couple of my fellow ensemble directors, as well as other taiko organizations, as they ramped back up to their in-person activities,” Nguyen says.
In addition to promoting taiko drumming, Nguyen finds ways to share Asian and Asian American cultural and traditional arts. “Aside from taiko, which I have been playing for nearly 20 years, I am one of few Tsugaru shamisen (Japanese three-stringed percussive lute) players in Southern California,” she says. “I am the principal shamisen player and artistic director of The Wagaku Collective, an all-traditional instrument ensemble that performs on shakuhachi/shinobue flutes, Tsugaru shamisen, Okinawan sanshin and, of course, taiko.”
See Nguyen’s shamisen (@tsugaruterry) Facebook and Instagram pages. Nguyen also appears as a guest artist with various taiko ensembles and musicians. She studies and researches the history of Japanese traditional instruments (wagakki) and folk music (minyo), which is reflected in her lessons and presentations.
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Sycamore Community Schools
Tanner Otto admits to being a thief. “Most of my ideas have been ‘borrowed’ from other orchestra teachers,” he says. The idea for the marching orchestra came from his teacher, Brian Cole, whose middle school orchestra played and walked in the fall homecoming parade for years. “As a student I always enjoyed the experience of being in a parade and throwing out candy to those who came to watch. The homecoming parade at Sycamore Community Schools is one of my favorite events of the year. Most people expect to see the marching band in the parade, but seeing the orchestra is a fun surprise! The parade is a great way for us to be visible in the community and for our students to show their school spirit.”
The orchestra director adds that violins and violas walk the parade while cellos and basses sit on a flatbed trailer or in the back of a pickup — see the video of the marching orchestra in action.
Another “borrowed” idea was a concert that featured a glow-in-the-dark rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Otto says, “We started by putting glow-in-the-dark stars on the instruments, then we took it to the next level by buying glow bracelets for each student in our school colors. In the moments before we played ‘Twinkle Twinkle,’ students cracked their bracelets and put them on their bow hands. Once the lights were off, it created a super cool look. I even used a giant glow stick as a baton!”
These out-of-the-box ideas make orchestra fun and engaging for his students. He supplements the method book for his second-year students with pop songs or music from movies or TV shows. “Students love to play music they recognize, and many of them have pedagogical merit,” Otto explains. “For example, ‘Havana’ by Camila Cabello is great for refining the C major finger pattern and off-beat 8th notes. ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is perfect for forward extensions. Many of these songs can be arranged into different keys, depending on what students are working on.”
Otto adds improvisation, composition and digital music creation into the curriculum. He says, “While improv is something we work on all year, composing and music creation are great units to do after concerts or before breaks. Students really enjoy these projects and I love seeing how creative their final products are.”
Another unique teaching method Otto uses is to have students work with partners to refine their technique. “Working with a peer is less intimidating and makes orchestra more social,” he says. “I find it especially useful when we begin working with the bow. In no time, students begin acting as the teacher, recognizing mistakes and helping their partner.”
Even his classroom setup is forward thinking. “Even before COVID, we sat in a grid with a few feet between each chair,” Otto explains. “Having space between each student really helps with classroom management and gives me the ability to walk around the room and get to every student. I also don’t have a podium or stand at the front of the room and that keeps me from being tied to one spot. I often walk around with my instrument so that I can play along or demonstrate.”
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Joseph Keels Elementary School
Columbia, South Carolina
Kenneth Perkins started the Joseph Keels Elementary (JKE) chorus in 2012 — his first year as a music teacher. That year, he had about 12 kids in the choir, and for the winter concert, they performed “a whopping five songs accompanied by me on the piano,” he says. After that first year, Perkins’ music program grew each year until 2020 when COVID hit.
An offshoot of his large chorus was the recorder ensemble that he assembled to play with the singers. Perkins says, “We played fun songs around the neighborhood, traveled to nursing homes, participated in festivals and even went to Carowinds [an amusement park in North Carolina]!”
Fun is a constant element in Perkins’ classroom. “I try to create a fun learning environment that is filled with plenty of movement,” he says. “Children learn by doing and because of that, I believe in having my students do and perform as much as physically possible. Music-making is at its peak level when all children can participate and feel like they are contributing to the process.”
Even at the elementary level, Perkins actively seeks new and culturally relevant information that he can merge into his lessons. “This allows my lessons to be more fresh and unique,” he says. “In many ways, I give students a choice in the direction that our music lessons can go. They have shown me that they relish these opportunities — which may be as simple as allowing my kindergarten students to choose between playing instruments or playing a game — which encourages me to do even more.”
Outside the classroom, Perkins is just as enthusiastic. “Throughout the school, I try to do as much as I can to spread the joy and beauty of music to both adults and children,” he says. “For adults, I formed a faculty and staff choir and sought voices that were trained and untrained to join. It was a smashing success — the faculty choir performs for several programs throughout the school year.”
He continues, “For the younger grade levels, I am constantly seeking field trips to the ballet or to the local orchestra at the Koger Center. For the older students, I’ve showcased their talents on our acclaimed morning news shows. Students have played the recorder, violin and even sung on air!”
JKE is also involved in the University of South Carolina Strings Project that selects 25 students by lottery and offers them string lessons. Perkins has contributed to selected students for that program as well.
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Band Director (8-12),
Assistant Band Director (5-7)
Pierz Healy High School
Being a band director is the Pohland family profession. Joel Pohland’s father, Glenn, and his brother, John, are both band directors, and Joel learned from both of them that the key to building a great band program is building relationships beyond the band room. And that is exactly what he has done at Pierz Healy High School.
Pohland has an open-door policy for his students and shows them that they can trust him to be more than their band director. “I am not afraid to share personal stories, trials and exciting adventures in my life, and the students appreciate this so much,” he says. “They want to know that their teachers are human and go through problems just like they do. I hope that by providing them room to express themselves outside of the band room and ask for help outside of music, that students will engage more completely in the band room and have trust in me to guide them to be the best versions of themselves — as musicians and human beings.”
In addition to providing support to his students, Pohland also challenges them musically. He searches for and discovers new music from new composers that push the boundaries of what has normally been done in the band world. “New composers are writing fun techniques such as using paper (as in “Paper Cut” by Alex Shapiro) and so much more that engages students to a new level, which in turn engages our audience,” Pohland says. “I always try to find a central theme to our music, and I think that the students and audiences have really appreciated this because it adds to the overall concert experience.”
One memorable concert was the first performance after the COVID hiatus in the spring of 2021. “The Comeback Concert was incredible,” Pohland says. “There was so much passion and energy from the students — I’ve never seen so much excitement in the band room prior to a performance. It had been over a year since our last live performance, and the students were overjoyed.”
Pohland appreciates the support his program receives from the administration and community. “Pierz is a really special place to work,” he says. “We have an incredible music team … and together we have created an incredible music program in our community, and the students have a place where they feel like they belong. So many students comment on how the band room is like a second home or an unexpected home — this is the greatest compliment I can receive as a music educator.”
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Director of Choirs
Mountain Ridge Junior High
American Fork, Utah
Alec Powell considers himself to be a perfectionist, but he realizes that that can be a problem when teaching middle school students at Mountain Ridge Junior High. But his students are hard workers who constantly push themselves to be better. “They rarely want an easy day, and always surprise me with their tenacity,” he says.
Powell recalls that after a recent concert, he was out sick. He left his students to work in sectionals on some new music. “When I came back, not only had they learned their new music, but they memorized it. They wanted to surprise me with how hard they worked.”
How does the director of choirs instill this work ethic in his students? “I tell my students that the most important part of my class is becoming better people. I don’t care if they are musicians after they leave my room, but I do want them to leave better,” he says.
Powell understands that the middle school years can be difficult, so he connects with his students through honesty. “I strive to be as authentic as possible and model that same behavior in my classroom,” he says. “I talk about the losses as often as I do the wins. I speak openly about therapy, and how it and music have greatly affected my mental health. I give my students the space to say what and how they are feeling, and I act as a listener, not a fixer.”
During the pandemic, Powell saw the immediate need for a feel-good moment since the winter concert was canceled. “Normally I arrange our final number for the top three ensembles, but there was no way for this to happen. Seeing how other amazing educators were working with their virtual choirs, I decided to give it a go. After arranging/orchestrating the piece, we spent the beginning of November rehearsing and recording outside.”
Enrollment in his choir classes have increased dramatically. “I wish I had the magic formula for this,” Powell admits. “I think it has to do with class culture. I remember latching on to teachers I connected with, so I share stores about my life and experiences to humanize myself in the eyes of my students.”
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Director of Choirs
Liberty Middle School
Empowering students to lead, embrace new ideas with a positive attitude and actively support one another are the foundations of Benjamin Rogers’ vocal program at Liberty Middle School. “We recently added a ‘Choir Shout-Out Wall’ in our classroom where students can give their peers compliments, and the focus on building community helps rehearsal attitude and retention,” he explains.
Rogers established a Choir Leadership Council for each choir, which has four main roles to help classes run successfully: 1) Directors Assistants typically lead the class through kinesthetic and vocal warmups and literacy activities; they also run choral rehearsals when Rogers is absent. 2) Secretaries take attendance and oversee any organizational aspects of the choral classroom, from numbering scores to collecting them after a concert cycle. 3) Marketing Chairs are the go-tos for fundraising efforts and the group’s social media. 4) Wardens encourage singers to meet classroom expectations and handle any emergencies.
But the biggest change Rogers implemented was creating and getting approval for four voice-based choir tracks — beginning, intermediate and advanced treble, and advanced bass — instead of grade-level choirs. During the prior academic year, the school piloted an advanced mixed choir with a beginning treble and beginning bass choir. “With a strong recruitment initiative, our numbers grew in size to accommodate the four voice-based choirs,” Rogers explains. “Our school has a fantastic counseling team that supports our music program wholeheartedly and forms our master schedule around our ensembles.”
This shift from grade-level to voice-based choirs was done not only at Liberty, but throughout the district, which “means that our community is empowering our arts programs and paving the way for higher achieving music ensembles,” Rogers says. “We are able to differentiate our instruction for the different levels and types of voices in each choir in a more efficient way than when all students are clumped together as part of a grade-level choir.”
With such innovative changes, it’s no wonder that choir numbers have more than doubled — even in the midst of a pandemic. Rogers has strong, year-round recruitment. “Our choirs record and send ‘virtual letters’ to our feeder schools with our choirs singing, we’ve done choral pen pals, we share our concerts with our feeder schools, and I join our counseling team on visits to the elementary schools,” he says. “After initial registration, I call every incoming 6th-grade family to encourage them to join one of our music programs at Liberty. We also recruit from our current student population with bring-a-friend-to-choir events, and I recruit from teaching a 6th-grade general music class to students who aren’t in a music ensemble.”
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Director of Bands, Music Teacher
Springfield High School
In this fast-moving world, it’s rare to encounter someone who thinks things through before acting. But that’s exactly what Mark Stanford does. “I make a conscious effort to take a step back and think about my response, answers and decisions,” he explains. “One way I have done this is by asking for the opinions of others, including students! And I seriously consider everyone’s opinions and suggestions — in fact, this year’s marching band show was entirely selected by the students.”
He took this same approach when he took over the band program at Springfield High School. “Not implementing too many rapid changes was important because each program has its own unique culture and expectations that must be learned and considered before making changes,” he says. “Upon my arrival, the Springfield band program already was headed in a positive direction. Keeping in touch with the former director and talking to colleagues helps me make decisions and changes that improve the program while honoring its legacy and traditions.”
Recruitment has been a primary focus for Stanford as he grows the band’s enrollment. “We have a district tradition of doing a side-by-side concert with the 8th-grade and high school bands,” he says. “We also have an 8th-grade band night, where 8th graders rehearse and have fun with the high school marching band. I also host several recruitment meetings led by current band members who share their experiences, and we emphasize that students can be involved in band and athletics by working with the district media team to have our athlete/musicians featured on social media.”
With his training on Pro Tools software and music technology instruction during his master’s degree program, Stanford was asked to help set up the new music lab and develop the curriculum for the digital music production class. Along with his colleague, Mike Zubert, Stanford worked with the district to purchase Pro Tools along with desk-mounted microphones and MIDI controllers, which maximized desk space. “The new curriculum gives students the opportunity to learn about concepts of music by creating and producing on industry-standard software,” he says.
On top of band and digital music courses, Stanford teaches a guitar and ukulele elective for which he developed curriculum and content with Zubert.
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Music Director, Computer Coding Instructor
Metlakatla High School
Amanda Schoolland embraces the traditions of Metlakatla where she teaches. S’malgyak, the native language of the Tsimshian people who live in Metlakatla, is a dying language. “I work with members of the community and school to revive the language by using phrases in class,” Schoolland says. “In addition, we often sing songs in S’malgyak, and a local dance leader has gifted some of his original compositions to the high school band. We perform at least one of his pieces every year and use locally made hand drums decorated with Tsimshian Northwest Formline Art.”
Music is a big part of Metlakatla culture, “creating a unique history on our isolated Alaskan island,” Schoolland says. “Because of this rich background, families encourage students in any and all musical avenues. When I proposed marching in the Fourth of July and Founder’s Day parades, students were eager to give it a shot. We rehearsed through the month of June and marched in our town celebrations. This was the first marching band in decades!”
The year before Schoolland joined the faculty of Metlakatla High School as the music director, the music department was all but gone. “It has been a wonderful experience to rebuild the program and see it flourish,” she says. “Even after school hours, the band room is often filled with students excited to share their accomplishments and gain more confidence in their musical abilities. My students are gifted artists and interesting, creative individuals that make our music ensembles unique, tightly bonded and uplifting.”
Schoolland also helped revive the community choir, which used to sing Christmas carols for the holiday celebration in town. “Years prior to my move to Metlakatla saw the group perform sporadically,” she explains. “A piano player who began accompanying the school choir mentioned the community choir, and together we contacted former members and invited new singers. The first year was a small group, but consistency proved to be the key, and the next year was much larger, filled with incredible voices and camaraderie.”
In her quest to grow the music program, Schoolland lobbied school and district administrations to introduce a strings program when she saw the lack of string ensembles at the elementary and middle school levels. She then sought out grants to secure instruments through the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and Colorado Public Radio, as well as through local community donations. “The first year, students participated in beginning orchestra,” she says. “By the second year, we were expanding to two and three ensembles to accommodate the number of students and various skill levels.”
In addition to music, Schoolland also teaches computer science. She keeps organized by using checklists and reminders. “For instance, I choose music selections early so I can study scores and compile sheet music for students well ahead of deadlines,” she explains. “In computer science, students are required to ask others for assistance before referring questions to me, so they are learning and teaching constantly. That leaves me more time to work with individual students on complex coding concepts. I thoroughly enjoy all the different hats I wear, which makes it easy to stay motivated.”
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Independent Piano Teacher
Jennifer Stadler’s Piano Studio
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
You’ll experience more than just playing the piano when you take private lessons from Jennifer Stadler. “I work hard to keep lessons interesting for my students (and myself!),” she says. “I maintain a massive library of resources including physical and digital games, educational apps and practice incentives to keep my students motivated throughout the school year.”
Stadler also provides a variety of performance opportunities in her piano studio, and she makes sure to include fun elements. “Students attend regular studio classes where they perform solo and ensemble pieces for a small group of peers,” she says. “They also engage in cup rhythm ensembles, sight-reading relays, digital escape rooms and other fun group activities.”
Her students also participate in two formal recitals — one in the winter and one in the spring. “The winter recital always includes a group sing-a-long, which everyone enjoys. During the quarantine, we continued this tradition over Zoom (with extended family, thanks to the online format) and also played holiday trivia,” she says.
The spring recital is different each year, according to Stadler. “One year, students created a storyboard of images that was projected on an overhead screen while they performed,” she says. “Another year, students created green-screen performance videos, where they appeared to be playing in another time or place (e.g., playing ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ inside Hogwarts) using chroma key technology. This multimedia project fostered creativity and musical connection — and the students had a ton of fun doing it.”
Students also participate in events outside of Stadler’s studio like the Central Oklahoma Music Teachers Association (COMTA) Clavinova Ensemble Adventures, a collaborative event where they perform in an orchestra of digital pianos, and the Oklahoma Music Teachers Association (OMTA) Achievement Auditions, a non-competitive adjudicated event where they can earn ribbons, medals and trophies.
With her tech skills, it’s not surprising that Stadler is a member of the National Conference for Keyboard Pedagogy (NCKP) Technology Committee, which is responsible for planning all aspects of the preconference technology track. She has presented sessions on a variety of tech topics, including multimedia and long-distance recital ideas, the role of virtual reality in music performance and education, and green-screen technology.