Elementary school music teacher heads up Vienna Jammers percussion ensemble and was semifinalist for 2018 Grammy Music Educator of the Year.
Did you have an inspirational music teacher?
Dave McKee at Virginia Tech. When I went in to audition for the music department to go into trumpet performance, I told him I wanted to play in the orchestra pits on Broadway. And he said, “Well, let me tell you how many trumpet players there are on Broadway. I’ve seen you teach. Why don’t you consider doing performance and pedagogy, just in case the performance thing doesn’t work out?” I actually didn’t even look back from there.
Tell us a little about the Vienna Jammers.
A former student’s older brother came to me his junior year and was like, “Hey would you be willing to start an elementary school percussion ensemble?” I had done some percussion, some West African hand drumming my first couple years as a teacher. So when he came to me, I was like “Yeah let’s do it.” And so we just opened it up to anybody who wanted to do it. We have five ensembles, [including] a steel pan ensemble that is for seventh grade through seniors, over 120 kids, an adult group that just meets for fun and an eight-member board.
Describe your teaching philosophy.
I’ve always tried to set up an environment that’s safe, that they can take risks in. There’s so many [instances] where some adults will be like, “Oh yeah, I never sing. When I was in elementary school, my music teacher told me, ‘Don’t sing—you’re not good.’” I can’t even fathom that thought. Everybody sings, everybody can create music, everybody’s capable of doing this. And I want to create an environment where you can try, and even if you don’t feel that you’re the best, you can still go for it.
What message do you want your students to take with them?
I’m not teaching the next Mozarts and Beethovens and Mariah Careys. But I am teaching the next musicians, doctors, lawyers, writers, videographers, nurses—wherever they go. And I want them to leave me being better people. It’s a mistake to say, “You’ve got to get this because you’re going to be musicians.” No, you’re not. And if you are going to be, you’re not going to be because I’m telling you. But I do want you to be able to learn how to listen to other people. I do want you to be able to disagree with someone and be able to still communicate with them. I do want you to make the right choice when no one’s watching. And if I can instill those values in you while you’re here under my keep as a music teacher, I’ve done my job successfully.
Interview has been edited and condensed.