November 09, 2017

Hitting the high notes: 3 public school music teachers Grammy finalists

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
educator grammy nominees
Caption: L-R: Drew Benware of Saranac Lake Central Schools Teachers Association; Melissa Salguero of the United Federation of Teachers; and Amy Steiner of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Photos provided.

Cue the music.

A New York public school music teacher may soon be strutting down a red carpet in high style, wearing bling and humming a show tune. Three of these educators are among 25 finalists from across the country who have hit the right notes as contenders for the 2018 Grammy Music Educator.

Geographically, they represent western New York, the North Country and the Bronx.  Educationally, they represent hundreds upon hundreds of students. If one of them makes it to the big night, a student marching band, a high school jazz ensemble or a chorus of singers might likely trail them.
Here they come:

Amy Steiner is a rabble-rousing pro-music teacher and bassoon player who started a campaign called FORGOT MUSIC? in Buffalo after music programs were eliminated in budget cuts. She directs the school’s well-known jazz ensemble, is a professional conductor and a member of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Drew Benware is an avid High Peaks hiker who teaches and conducts chorus, choir, ensemble, and directs the annual school musical and several regional adult select choruses in small town Saranac Lake, where he is a member of the SL Central Schools Teachers Association.

Melissa Salguero, a member of the United Federation of Teachers, is a contender for the second time as a Bronx music teacher from Florida who “always dreamed of teaching in New York City. It’s one of the most iconic music places in the world.” She appeared on the talk show “Ellen” after the school was broken into and musical instruments were stolen; host Ellen DeGeneres replaced the instruments and gave the school $50,000.

The trio of union music teachers is in a select group of 25, winnowed down from 197 music educators. In December, 10 finalists will be chosen and one winner in this fifth annual award will be flown to New York to attend the 60th Annual Grammy Awards and a range of Grammy Week events. The nine additional finalists will receive a $1,000 honorarium; the schools of all 10 finalists will receive matching grants. The remaining 15 semifinalists will receive a $500 honorarium with matching school grants.

Amy Steiner: 'I play music all day'

Grammy Music Educator contender Amy Steiner works in western New York, where she is a bassoon player, a music teacher at Hutchinson Central Technical High School, a professional conductor, a mom and an upstart rally warrior who will not let the music die.

“I play music all day,” Steiner said. “It keeps you youthful.”

A graduate of SUNY Fredonia with both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she is happy to be a finalist, and said having New Yorkers make such a strong showing in this select group “shows a lot about how important music education is here in New York.”

Steiner works hard to make that reality. She describes herself as a “huge advocate for keeping music in schools.” She started a program called FORGOT MUSIC? — modeled on the GOT MILK? campaign and supported by the Buffalo Teachers Federation — to make noise about music. Five years ago, the district cut every instrumental program in the woes of a budget crisis and Steiner set about staging rallies and protests. VH1 Save the Music, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Buffalo Philharmonic supported her campaign, among others.

It can be hard to ignore a bassoon player.

Some restorations have been made since. Elementary schools are given one day out of six for arts enrichment – which could be art or music – which still does not provide students with enough time to devote to music, Steiner believes. Some schools only have art and no music.

The principal can also “buy” music programs — including hiring a teacher — as a separate add-on to their budgets, in the same way they have to buy more reading teachers or English as New Language teachers.

“Schools that aren’t doing well can’t afford to buy a program,” she said. “It’s discriminatory. If there are 27 elementary schools, they should all be equal! They have to choose. It’s not fair!”

The mayor of Buffalo did fund instruments for three years, she said, in an effort to help schools.

Steiner started collecting data five years ago, she said, and she would like to shout from the rooftops: “We have 100 percent graduation rate for kids who take instrumental music in the city of Buffalo in the last five years.”

“Music is another whole modality of learning. You take it with you the rest of your life,” said Phil Rumore, Buffalo Teachers Federation president. “Art and music should be mandated.”

He called Steiner a “dynamite educator.”

Musically, Steiner is a founder and conductor of the Buffalo Niagara Concert Band; subs for wind ensemble or symphony concerts; and is a high school band director for grades 9-12. She is in charge of band and a 24-student jazz ensemble that is well known in the community for performances. Jazz has a “rich history” in the school, she said.

“We’re gigging it all the time,” she said as students practiced their scales and thirds in the background on flute, guitar and saxophone.

Last year, Steiner worked with her principal to incorporate a vocal program into the school for the first time ever. It debuted this year. She also brought in a concert band — orchestra without the string instruments — and all students are in that band.

This mom of three is bringing a national music conference to Buffalo, May 2-6, called Forte in Buffalo, which will include five famous composers in residence.

No matter what happens with the Grammys, Steiner is aglow with other recent news.

“I got invited to Carnegie … to bring my kids to Carnegie! Hall,” she added, just in case someone might not know about this esteemed New York institution. Her jazz ensemble and the concert band will be performing there on May 27.

Drew Benware: 'It's like having an artist in residence'

In the northern part of the state, music teacher Drew Benware was in class one recent autumn morning, plunking a key at a time while three students in front of him practiced their scales. He enunciated each key like an English major with a new word.

“Light up your face,”  he said. “Good!” “Higher!” “Stay open! Two more!” he urges. Down the hall someone is practicing a flute.

Next, Benware has them sing along with a recording of “Beauty in a Moment,” demonstrating how the time signatures change from five beats a measure to six to four. The three female students hold the high notes with his encouragement, dreamy and adolescent airy, unpolished and full of promise.

Music classes are held in the red brick high school in the small mountainous and wooded town of Saranac Lake where, on that fall morning, Benware woke to no electricity after a white pine fell on a power line. It blocked the road, so he walked out. No sweat there.

“I really like the woods, I run, hike, canoe and bike. I’m a 46er,” he said, using shorthand for his membership in a club where entry requires climbing New York’s 46 highest peaks.

In school, he works with two choirs that meet every day, directs a small group choir and has a piano class or keyboard lab.  After school, Benware is the vocal coach for select vocal ensembles.

Benware is well known within the community. He’s on the parish council and plays the organ for the local Catholic Church. He also conducts a regional chamber choir in the Town of Saranac, and the Americana-style Northern Lights Choir. This coming February, he will serve as chamberlain of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival festivities. He also serves as a guest conductor around the state and teaches at a music academy in Ithaca every summer.

Traveling provides exposure to different music styles and learning. Several years ago, Benware attended a choral institute at Exeter Cathedral in England and he has been on a performance tour to Siena, Italy. Each year, he brings students to the Ithaca College gospel fest, which he describes as “cultural immersion to the max … There are performers there from urban areas who’ve been living the music since they were born.”

Benware, a trumpet major in college who said he still plays that horn every day, notes that choral music introduces students to many languages, including Hebrew, Latin, German, African (Zulu), Spanish and French. He says the culture for music at the high school is all-inclusive, including students with special needs, sports players, gifted. He credits his predecessor, Helen DeMong, “for changing the culture here.”

The goal, he said, is to help students find their voice – both musically and within their personal cache.

Benware is particularly excited that, 50 singers of Saranac Lake’s music students — an unusually high number — have been accepted to the New York State School Music Association Area All-State Singing Festival on November 17-18.  Two students will also be attending the NYSSMA conference in Rochester November 30-Dec. 2.

“With Drew as a teacher and SLTA member, it's like having an artist in residence,” said Don Carlisto, Saranac Lake TA co-president. “In addition to his obvious skill as an educator, he brings to the school community his experience as a musician who's made recordings, worked with professional performers and led efforts to promote the arts regionally and statewide."

Melissa Salguero: 'I teach them the science behind how things work'

Far downstate, where every building is its own forest of apartments and businesses, Melissa Salguero teaches music at PS 48 Joseph Drake in the Bronx. “I teach it all,” she says. “Singing, instruments.” She savors New York, she said, because you can “hear music all the time,” whether it is on Broadway, a street corner or while waiting for a subway.

Last year, Salguero had Jelani Remi come visit her music students. Remi plays Simba in the musical “Lion King.”  Yes, that “Lion King.” Remi shared his challenging upbringing with students and told them how choices now can affect them later. He spoke to them of integrity.

Salguero speaks to these third- through fifth-graders about science. “We’re inventing our own instruments using circuitry,” she says, admitting that, during the summer, she is a “mad scientist” who showcases science projects at summer camps, workshops and shows.

She said she is focusing on electronic instruments because they are “accessible and relatable” to students who are learning how to play music on their computer. “Some kids have a tablet at home and they can make music on devices and not have to spend money on an instrument.” She described the South Bronx district as the poorest in the United States.

In April 2014, the school was broken into and instruments were stolen or trashed.

Her students decided wailing would prevail, and turned their voices to create a song.

“They took their anger and emotions and expressed themselves through music. It was truly a beautiful moment to help them process what happened and how to recover from such a loss,” Salguero said.

After the video was posted, parents and community members wrote to the “Ellen” show and Salguero was invited on as a guest that September.

“Ellen and Shutterfly were very generous; they gave us $50,000 and about $20,000 worth of new instruments.” Salguero said. “ I am constantly looking for more instruments so that my students don't have to rent instruments on their own.”

This was the second time the school made the big time. In 2011, Salguero entered the television show "Glee" Give a Note contest. She worked with students to make a music video that took the grand prize of $50,000.

Meanwhile, in everyday studies, Salguero said students are building circuits to make a controller so they can press a button and make a sound such as a drum sound.

“I teach them the science behind how things work,” she said, rushing on to talk about how she made a speaker using magnets and wire. She also uses paper in a cone shape and a sewing needle to play the music on an vinyl album, showing them how the needle amplifies the bumps in the groove as the record is turned.

“When kids see something set up, they’re curious. Then they drive the lesson,” Salguero said. “When students drive education, it’s so much more effective and memorable.”

Before school — and after her two-plus hour commute, which begins at 4:30 a.m. — she meets with students who are part of band. They play for parades and galas, at the local recreation center and at different community events. Salguero primarily plays trumpet and piano but, as bandleader, she said she has to play every instrument.

The Grammy Music Educator Award was first introduced to highlight the meaningful work done daily by thousands of music educators across the United States, from kindergarten to college, from public to private schools. Teachers honored with this award have made clear contributions to music education and have committed to the cause of preserving and maintaining music education in schools. The award is a partnership and joint presentation of the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation.

The 2018 GRAMMY Music Educator, selected out of the 10 finalists to be announced next month, will be flown out to New York to attend the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, and attend various Grammy Foundation events. The nine additional finalists will each receive a $1,000 honorarium; the schools of all 10 finalists will receive matching grants.

Fifteen semifinalists will also receive a $500 honorarium with matching school grants. All four of the previous Grammy Music Educator honorees — Kent Knappenberger, Jared Cassedy, Phillip Riggs, and Keith Hancock — are members of the National Association of Music Educators.