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Working Together to Battle for the Arts

One Grammy-nominated teacher is leading the way for education in the arts

Sierra Vista Middle School in Irvine, California has a local treasure in music teacher Henry Miller. He was nominated last year for the National GRAMMY Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Foundation. Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Henry started his musical life on clarinet and switched to trumpet, a decision that later earned him a scholarship to USC.

I asked Henry about the impact music education can have on young lives, and more specifically, the social and emotional effect on kids, particularly teens who are trying to find their way through their young lives.

He believes being in band or orchestra is a great team building activity, and compares it to participating in team sports. The big difference between music and sports is that in music if someone is playing poorly, they are not benched for someone better. The support system creates an all-for-one and one-for-all mentality that can help kids throughout their lives and careers.

It’s clear that Henry is highly deserving of the GRAMMY nomination and all other accolades and awards he has received for positively impacting the lives of so many young students over the years.

Interview Transcript:

Dr. Berger:  Henry, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today. First of all, congratulations on being a finalist for the Grammy Music Educator of Year Award!

How does that set with you that you get to be able to have people say that?

Henry Miller: It’s quite an honor. There’s no bigger name than “Grammy” when you’re talking about music awards, in general. I really appreciate the Grammy Museum for funding this project, getting behind and recognizing quality music teachers throughout the entire country.

I have no idea how many music teachers there are in the country but to be able to say that this organization says that I’m one of these people who should be recognized is quite an honor.

DB: When we think about music education, If we are real with ourselves in the conversations that we should be having publicly, I think, too many times, it’s being marginalized and the arts, in general. So talk to me not only from the perspective of the recognition that the Grammys bring but also in expanding the understanding and the value of music education in the overall experience that a young person has in our public schools around the country.

HM: This is a battle that all of us fight, and it’s a battle that’s been going on since I was in high school. I can remember, in California, we had Proposition 13. When that happened, the word was “This was going to decimate programs throughout the entire state.”

And it had a big hit. Programs that were large and had multi-course offerings were reduced significantly. It took a very long time for a lot of schools until they actually recovered from it.

So any person who goes into music education understands that this battle is going to be fought. We have to help educate the public about the significance, the importance, and the relevance that arts education has to our students.

I think one of the big issues we have today is that education has been focused down to almost being job training. People think that the goal of education is to get a job which is so sad. Imagine a situation where you’ve got kids who have a minimum of 13 years of education and then four years of college and maybe a graduate degree or whatever. Spending that much time of your life for the sole purpose to get a job is rather depressing.

Education wasn’t designed for that from the beginning. It was designed to be able to make us more thoughtful people and improve our lives, in a general sense. I think nothing does it better than the arts.

DB:  What responsibility do music educators have in forging the conversation and making it a point of discussion, when we talk about the role arts, plays in the overall curriculum?

I think that those who aren’t paying attention think, oh, that’s a nice thing to have. They don’t fully appreciate and understand that it is an integral part of the curriculum and of the experience within a school. Many think of it as learning another language and that alone has fantastic properties in the development of a young mind.

HM: We’re on the front line. We’re there and we’re doing it on a daily basis. But we can’t act in isolation. We must work together with our colleagues and our parents to create a quality experience in all schools.

I may have a program that may be labeled as a “quality program, ” but if somebody is trying to do the same thing and is not successful, I think it’s part of my responsibility to help bring them up. What can I do to make their program stronger?

All these kids that we’re teaching are future decision makers. They are future people who are going to go out in the public and make decisions as to whether music is important. If we’re raising a generation that does not have music or does not have access to a quality music education ─ why are they going to support it when they become adults?

I think it’s important that we ─ colleagues ─ help each other. We educate our parents to try to get kids involved, and we try to create that quality experience throughout.

DB:  Take us behind the scenes a little bit. If you’re walking into a faculty lounge and the discussion is around a bond issue or budgets, how comfortable do you feel in your role in speaking up for the department?

I just think that it’s so interesting when we start to break things out and we start to worry about issues around bonds, budgets, and funding. It sounds good in public to be able to say, “Of course, we need this department or that department.”

I was speaking with another school in California that will remain nameless, and they were without the arts for over five years. Those are scary propositions. I’m just curious about some of the conversations that you have with your colleagues who are in other departments as to how to discuss the value of each department without trampling the other.

HM: I think I’m fortunate in my particular situation. I’ve been a teacher for 27 years. Part of my responsibility is not only to educate those other people but also to educate my staff here on campus. They need to see what I do and see the quality of the experience the kids are having.

If they see that I’m here for kids to be able to create a quality experience for my students ─ that what I’m doing benefits them ─ then, I get the support. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to have colleagues who are open, and I don’t have people who are “This is mine, and that is yours and ne’er the twain shall meet.”

We’re all about helping our kids succeed regardless of what method we’re doing to help those kids to succeed.

Community outreach is an important thing, but it’s also important at the local level here so that my teachers ─ the math teachers, the English teachers, etcetera ─ can see what we’re doing, that we’re doing good things.

DB:  Let’s go down a different path. Let’s take a stroll down technology lane and talk about the impact technology is having on music education. Would you agree with my premise that some of these technological advances are actually expanding and opening the door to students who have never thought that music might be a part of their experience in school? It feels like it’s lowered the barrier to entry since kids can produce now and they can play a more active role in the way in which they experience music? Do you agree with that?

HM:  I think it’s double-edged. Yes, a lot of people can create stuff, but without an experience and a background, it’s difficult to disseminate what is quality and what is not quality.

You can go onto YouTube and you can hear a bunch of different sounds, but are you really hearing something of quality, something that’s going to stand the test of time, something that somebody is going to want to listen to ten or fifteen years down the road?

So I still think that what I do in here ─ with traditional band and traditional orchestral setting ─ is still very relevant.

I have a friend, a colleague, who says, “Nobody has ever invented violin 2.0. The violin that existed in the Baroque and the Renaissance times is virtually the same as the instrument the kids are playing today. It has survived, and it has impassioned people to be able to create and create music.

So even though there is technology and we can do some really neat things, when it comes down to it, when you’re playing violin, there’s something innate about producing something from an acoustic instrument versus creating sounds from a computer.

DB: I guess, on the other side of the aisle, would it, at least, create an opportunity for engagement at a different level with so many options that kids now have and what they might enjoy outside of school? If there is technology that helps bring them to the door, then it’s really about how to appropriately layout that technology in a world where they can have a deeper knowledge and an application around the fundamentals that you spoke of?

HM: There’s a movement out there about creating classes like rock band classes, electronic composition classes which I wholeheartedly support. I think ─ to your point ─ it brings other kids in who may not.

In our campus here, we have the band and the orchestra, but we also have guitar and ukulele. That’s another aspect for kids to be able to play instruments in addition to choir and musical theater. So we have a lot of options. There’s a door for everybody. There’s an opportunity for everyone regardless of the style of music you’re into or something you want to try. We have a program here that allows many different opportunities for kids.

DB: Let’s close with this, Henry. What is it like for you? I’ll speak from my own experience. I think that music education, at the surface, yes, is learning another language but there’s something that it does to the social-emotional development of young people that gives them an opportunity to experience life at a different level and in unison in a social manner with their fellow students. It’s really hard to do that in other subjects.

What is it like when you are at the front, and you are seeing young people who might be shy and who might not socially know how to navigate the difficult waters of being a teenager or a young person, and yet they can do it through the power of music and instrumentation?

HM: I think the greatest aspect we have is that when we create music, we’re doing it together. We have a band. We have a group of several different students who have a common interest and a common goal, and they work together to be able to do that.

It’s similar to what sports do, but the one advantage we have is I would never take a student who is not playing well and say, “Okay, you’re going to sit on the bench” and bring in another student. We’re all working together, and we’re only as strong as our weakest players; and so, we work together to bring kids up.

Old classical sheet music has a vintage tone and texture to it; panoramic format It’s not a competitive environment where I’m trying to beat you or play better than you. We’re all working together; the kid who may be the concertmaster in the orchestra is just an important as the one who is sitting last chair in the violin section. If that one kid doesn’t play their music correctly, it’s going to be heard and it’s going to be detrimental to the overall experience.

So there’s a real strong sense of camaraderie. There’s a real strong sense of working together. We’re just one big group project when we’re trying to create a concert in the most positive way.

And I love it when kids come back to me and talk about their life experiences and how significant it was for them to be able to create these relationships.

Personally, my closest friends are people I have known since the third and fourth grade and we were in band together in elementary school, middle school, high school, and even in the university. We actually played together at that point.

And if you go to my Facebook page, I would say that probably 90% of them are musicians in some aspect.

DB:  It is a community. It has long-staying power in that way, and it shows its power for young people. It looks like the Grammys got it right and that you are a fantastic ambassador for music education and kids, in general.

About Henry Miller:

Henry Miller was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Torrance, California. His trumpet playing earned him a scholarship at the University of Southern California where he studied under Boyde Hood of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Ed Tarr, renowned trumpet historian from Basil, Switzerland. At USC he performed in many performing ensembles including the USC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Lewis, and four years in the “Spirit of Troy”, The University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band.

He received his Bachelors of Music degree from California State University, Long Beach in 1989 and received his professional clear teaching credential the following year. In 1998, he graduated with honors from CSULB with a Masters of Music degree in trumpet performance and instrumental music conducting.

He has taught instrumental music in the Irvine Unified School District since the fall of 1990 and has taught at every grade level from third grade up through university graduate school including 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, Irvine Valley College and CSU, Long Beach. Currently, he is the Director of Instrumental Music at Sierra Vista Middle School where he teaches three bands, three orchestras, and jazz band.

Follow Henry Miller and Sierra Vista IUSD on Twitter

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post by Dr. Rob Berger.

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