News Column

The Grammys Go to High School

June 15, 2013



Jeffrey Haas, the band director at Ridgewood High School, has a long roster of students who have gone on to high-profile music careers. But the one who makes him most proud is also his competition.

Gary Bernice, Ridgewood High class of 2001, went on to become a high school band director in Springfield, Mass., and was recently nominated as a quarterfinalist for the Grammy Music Educator award.

And so was Haas.

"Nothing could make me more proud than to know that the values instilled in me by my great teachers have been now passed to the next generation," said Haas, who has taught music at Ridgewood High for 25 years. Ridgewood's music program today has more than 200 students participating in three bands.

Another North Jersey music teacher who was nominated is West Milford High School's director of bands, Dr. Brian McLaughlin, fondly known as Dr. Mac. In all, 217 teachers were named nationwide, 17 from New Jersey.

Announced during the 55th Grammy Awards last February, the prize seeks to recognize the contributions of music educators nationwide who have had a lasting impact on their students -- from those who go on to become professional artists to those who become lifelong music appreciators.

After submitting video applications this week, the quarterfinalists will learn in August whether they've been chosen as semifinalists. The winner will be announced during a special ceremony leading up to the Grammy Awards in February 2014 and receive up to $20,000 in grants and cash prizes.

At a time when financial support for arts and music education is waning, Haas and McLaughlin both recognize they're in positions of privilege, teaching in communities where the arts are still highly regarded.

"Folks value what we do," said McLaughlin, a Texas native who received his doctorate in French horn performance and pedagogy from the University of Iowa. "The support we get from them is tremendous. Nobody is at the concession stand during football games at halftime because they're watching the band."

At Ridgewood High, Haas says he has worked to make the music program a sanctuary for his students. "I'm trying to make it a haven from the high stress levels they experience in the rest of the building," he said.

Unlike many bands and orchestras, Haas' ensembles don't designate first chairs -- the principal seats for the best players who often get to perform solo parts. During concerts, between musical pieces, he asks the band members to rotate seats.

"I don't need anybody labeled as the last chair," he explained.

With a deep list of professional musician contacts, Haas invites artists to play with his students. Recent guests included Tom "Bones" Malone, a jazz musician and member of the house band on "The Late Show With David Letterman," and Donald Batchelder, principal trumpet player in the New York City Opera orchestra and director of brass studies at Montclair State University.

"He does a lot of things to expose the students to good music," Gary Fink, an assistant band director at Ridgewood, said of Hass. "He provides experiences they can really draw on from the classroom."

As director of the marching band, McLaughlin spends many hours with his students during their four years at West Milford High School, in class and marching band practice and during summer rehearsals to prepare for football season. As a result, he has become a major figure in some of their lives and a huge influence.

There's the oboist Missy Lang, for example, who will enroll at Montclair State University in the fall to study music education. She was one of two current students who nominated McLaughlin for the award.

"I came into school not knowing what I wanted to do with my life," she said. "He's easily the reason I decided to go into music education."

Or take the senior clarinetist Lindsay Walsh. "Dr. Mac was not just my music teacher but like the father I never had," she said. "He is always there when we need to talk, we need to vent, or something is going wrong."

And, of course, he teaches them how to make music, too.

Walsh recalled a recent concert where the band performed "Sleep," an ethereal piece by the modern composer Eric Whitacre. At the end of the composition, the audience sat silent for nearly 30 seconds.

"They didn't want to break that silence afterward," Walsh said.

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