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Grammy-winning teacher talks about what music students need

Kent Knappenberger
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Kent Knappenberger, who won the Grammys First Annual Music Educator Award, shared his thoughts about music education in an interview with this column.

His comments may shed some interesting insights for those involved in this year's nominations process for the Grammys' Second Annual Music Educator Award, which will be presented at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards.

Knappenberger, a music instructor at Westfield Academy and Central School in Westfield, N.Y., was announced as the recipient of the first annual Music Educator Award presented by The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation at the Special Merit Awards during Grammy Week.

Passionate about his work, it's not just about teaching, Knappenberger told "It’s more than just music appreciation. It’s more like music connection."

Knappenberger was flown to Los Angeles by The Recording Academy to accept his award at the Special Merit Awards Ceremony & Nominees Reception honoring recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical Grammy Award during Grammy Week 2014.

Along with his family, he also attended the 56th Annual Grammy Awards.

Having been able to get out of the classroom, to attend Grammy week events, including the Grammy Awards, themselves, despite all the excitement, he was certainly not a fish out of water.

Many of the artists, and even voters, were former music students, themselves.

Knappenberger saw what the result of what a good teacher and a lot of inspiration could lead to.

It was certainly a thrill for him, as the Beatles were also given their Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award during the Special Merit Awards ceremony.

Knappenberger was introduced to the public during the telecast of the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, by Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation, sharing the stage with multi-Grammy winner John Legend and Grammy Foundation Honorary Board Chair Ryan Seacrest.

The response to the first-ever award for a music teacher involved stiff competition, resulting in one music teacher from nine cities, across seven states, as finalists for the award.

More than 30,000 initial nominations were submitted from virtually all 50 states.

With nominations for the Grammy's Second Annual Music Educator Award having begun last last week, applications for the second annual Music Educator Award are currently online.

Unlike any other Grammy Award, anyone in the general public may become involved. Anyone can nominate a teacher, by visiting The deadline to nominate is March 31, 2014.

The award is open to current U.S. music teachers. Members of the public may nominate a teacher, students, parents, friends, colleagues, community members, school deans, and administrators. Teachers may even nominate themselves.

All nominated teachers will be notified that they have been submitted, and they will be invited to complete an application.

The process will morph each year, in order to give recognition to the diverse span of effective teaching styles and methods used by music instructors.

The Music Educator Award was created to recognize current educators (kindergarten through college, public and private schools) that have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and that demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools.

When asked by what some of the methods are he uses, Knappenberger said, "They are a bit unusual, but they are very inclusive, in the sense that they’re not necessarily a performing group, like a band or choir, or something traditional like that."

He added, "Now, we do have a band and a choir in our school. They’re very good at what they do. But we also have opportunities for kids that are maybe not interested in music, in that way. We have kids that write songs. Maybe they’re afraid to get up in front of a group. But we try to help them develop, what I’m going to call, an 'in-life relationship' with music."

Knappenberger doesn't forget what happens to his former students. He does keep an ear open. He notes, "So consequently, if look at kids that have graduated from our school, we have what I call some recreational musicians, people who are self-producing singers or songwriters, and everything from opera to folk musicians."

Just as kids later remember their old teachers, Knappenberger feels affectionate about his old students. "It’s been neat to see them kind of find their place. But really, the bottom line is, where they are going to use music in life," he says.

So what happens in his school that led to him winning such a coveted award? For one, it is individualized. Says Knappenberger, "In this specific classroom, there are 18 to 20 students. We do our best to try to help kids find their place for this art form."

Many kids fall in love with music, not through their school experience, but through their radio, iPod and music videos. In Knappenberger's classes, how important does he feel that today's pop music is to them?

"I would have to say that there are kids that are well-versed in the (Grammy) nominees," Knappenberger observes of his young students. He offers, "I went to see Vampire Weekend, and they are Grammy-nominated, and I have some students back home that are very, very jealous of the fact that I got to hear them."

He offers a smile. One knows that his students must be thinking, "This teacher is one cool guy."

As much as Knappenberger keeps an open ear to keep a pulse on what is going on, partly to keep his music classes even more relevant, it works both ways. He concedes that despite he opens new musical horizons for his students, "There are a number of kids that introduced me to new music, because they are interested in technology and the next musicians that we should be listening to."

However, unlike as is the case with some other music teachers, Knappenberger enjoys the exchange, of learning about new artists from his students.

He is well aware that his music students represent the future. "That’s very exciting to me, because it’s all going on right now. That’s changing tonight, you know. Who are we going to be listening to?" he ponders. "So I mean, the kids are on top of it."

Are there kids today that are getting misconceptions, such as mistakenly thinking that practicing vocals is no longer necessary, because of technology like AutoTune, and other pitch correction technology?

Knappenberger thinks his students realize the fallacy of such thinking. "We don’t run into a lot of that, because I’m pretty traditional when it comes to my approach about how I teach voice. Because we have kids that are going to go to music school at some time."

He points out the gospel truth for singers of all genre, by saying "If you want to know how to have the best voice possible, you’re going to have to know how to breathe, and all of that, if you really want to sing well."

The programs he offers could be even better, he says. "We need to get some more instruments for some of the kids, so that would probably be at the top of the list. They will belong to the school, but the kids will be free to use them. They can take them home, whatever, to practice." This will happen, because of a grant from The Recording Academy.

He says the other thing money could provide, "would be for purchasing sheet music that we need."

There is more that money can buy for music students in his program, and according to Knappenberger, that would be for some experiences for the kids. "We’ve got plans now to take a small group to see (the musical) Newsies on Broadway in New York City. The kids can’t wait, and I can’t either," he enthusiastically says.

He adds, "And this grant is making that happen."

The spirited Knappenberger, who looks far younger than his age, has been teaching for 25 years. Over time, he has seen many changes, whether from music fads, to teaching methods to government financial support, or escalating lack thereof.

Knappenberger points out that there is no one-size-fits all way to teach music to young people. The ways in which young people experience music is very individualized.

"There’s a lot of pressure that’s going on in some places for more standardized testing," he says of an issue he finds concerning. "And when that happens in other areas that could happen with music. But I’m just so afraid that if we do that when it comes to music, we would be cutting off culture at the knees."

"Such tests come from a very highbrow kind of place," he says.

"I mean, the very essence of who we are as people, especially as kids discover who they are as individuals, and boy, that’s why that needs to be there. That is why the arts exist," he emphasizes.

As the eyes of everyone from his students, to Grammy-winners, both past and present, have now met him, and not to mention that millions of people saw him introduced on television, as they watched the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, certainly his life has changed.

Backstage in the media room at the Grammys, I asked what he has learned from the experience of Grammy Week.

Knappenberger responded, “Well, I got some good advice from some people, one of which is standing next to me,” referring to Christina Cassidy of The Grammy Foundation’s MusiCares and who also works with its many Grammy In The Schools programs.

"When we’re around people who are so good at what they do," he said, "One of the exciting things is that they are pouring themselves into it. So we see and hear someone like Taylor (Swift) perform, the reason we love her is because she is putting this piece of herself out there. I really believe that is something you can do at any job you are at."

"But of course, I’m dealing with young musicians," he adds. "And to me, that is where the music lies. And that’s what I try to impart to kids. It’s when you give a little part of yourself, look out. Great stuff can happen.”

There was more he had to offer. "Be yourself. There is no other role to play."

When asked about his young days as a student, himself, Knappenberger confessed, "I couldn’t walk by a piano without playing it, so someone said to my parents, ‘Get this kid some lessons.’ So they did get me lessons. They never had to ask me to practice. I always liked to play, and my teachers at that time were very free."

Knappenberger never wanted to place a limit his playing experience. "I had sort of musical ADHD," he explains. "I’d try guitar or something else. That’s why I play two other instruments that make no sense, that have no relationship to each other, guitar and saxophone. It’s kind of the way my musical life has been.”

In addition to a once-in-a-lifetime experience during Grammy Week, Knappenberger also received a $10,000 honorarium from The Recording Academy.

One can only guess who might win the award for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. Each year, one recipient will continue to be selected from 10 finalists and will be recognized for his/her remarkable impact on students' lives. The nine finalists received a $1,000 honorarium, and the schools of all 10 finalists also received matching grants.

The honorariums and grants provided to the finalists and schools are made possible by support given from the Grammy Foundation's Education Champions Box Tops For Education, Converse, Disney Performing Arts, Ford Motor Company Fund, Journeys, Microsoft Surface, and Universal Music Group.

As the winner of the Grammys First Annual Music Educator Award, what suggestion would he give to students and to other music teachers around the country? Knappenberger doesn't even have to take a breath before he gives his answer. “Think outside of the box.”

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