UpClose: GRAMMY Foundation Award Winner

Mike Lawson • • April 4, 2016

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Phillip RiggsIntroducing Phillip Riggs, the 2016 Recipient of the Grammy’s Biggest Education Honor, the Music Educator Award

The third-annual recipient of the Music Educator Award, presented by the Grammy Foundation and The Recording Academy, went to Phillip Riggs, of North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C., who was selected from a total of ten music teachers from ten cities across eight states who were finalists for the award out of more than 4,500 entries from all 50 states.

Phillip  Riggs (WireImage)The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation established the Music Educator Award to recognize current educators (kindergarten through college, public and private schools) who have made a “significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools.” This special award was presented at The Recording Academy’s Special Merit Awards Ceremony (honoring recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical Grammy Award) this month in Los Angeles. Prior to the official receiving of the award, Riggs wasflown to Los Angeles to attend the 58th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony and received a $10,000 honorarium. The nine other finalists will receive a $1,000 honorarium, and the schools of all ten finalists also will receive matching grants. The honorariums and grants provided to the finalists and schools are made possible by the generosity and support of the Grammy Foundation’s Education Champions Converse, Disney Performing Arts, Ford Motor Company Fund, and Journeys.

“The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation established our Music Educator Award to draw attention to the extraordinary contributions music teachers make to the lives of their students and their schools,” said Neil Portnow, President/ CEO of the Grammy Foundation and The Recording Academy. “While each of the Music Educator Award recipients embodies a wide range of skills and talents that make them such distinguished teachers, it is also striking that they have all felt that they are receiving the recognition on behalf of the wider arts education community.”

SBO recently sat down to speak to Phillip Griggs to get to know more about the kind of educators selected for this special Music Educator Award.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a musician?

WireImage Phillip RiggsMy dad led the choir at a little country church. I wouldn’t even call him a choir director necessarily, but he led the choir. So was involved with that from an early age. But in a formal way probably sixth grade like a lot of kids, beginning band, getting started.

Were there any particular musicians at that age that got you interested in popular culture or was it the influence of an educator at the school?

Back then — and I’ve done this a lot, too, as a middle school director in the past — the director and maybe some of the high school kids would come and talk to fifth graders and demonstrate the instruments and do sort of a music aptitude test. Getting started was all about the directors visiting.

What are your primary instruments?

As a beginner I started on trumpet, through junior high at the time. As I came into the high school the band director said, “We need somebody to play euphonium.” So I said, “Sure, I’d be glad to do that.” So I did that in concert season and then marching snare drum most of my high school career. When I got to college there aren’t a lot of gigs for euphonium players, unless you’re going in the military. My primary instrument is trombone, but I continued to play euphonium in some of the ensembles at the collegiate level.

So pretty eclectic. I don’t know that I have a real major instrument. It’s funny, now I probably do more with percussion than I do anything. The orchestra teacher at my school, Scott Laird, is a really good improviser on violin. And the theater teacher is a good guitar player and singer/songwriter. We do a lot of trio stuff together just kind of doing covers and some original stuff.

Where did you go to college and when did you start out as music educator?

I did my undergraduate degree at Appalachian State University up in the mountains of North Carolina. And did my master’s degree, which actually is an administrative degree, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. So not a master’s in music, but in administration actually. I graduated spring of ‘88 and went right into teaching in a really small school system up in the northwest corner of North Carolina, kind of where Virginia and North Carolina and Tennessee meet. I was only there one year, but learned a lot more that year than probably the kids did. I was the music teacher 6 through 12 in the whole school, so it was pretty overwhelming. A job opportunity came up in the next year in Davidson County, more in the Winston- Salem-Greensboro area, to just teach middle school. And so I moved down and taught at a couple of different schools in Davidson County for about 15 years, teaching middle school and high school band at various times in that area.

Tell us about where you currently teach and your position.

I teach at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. And officially I’m a music instructor, but basically I’m the band director at the school. We have a wind ensemble that’s very active. And also what we call jazz performance workshop. Sometimes we do big band stuff; sometimes we do combos, but really try to get all the kids improvising. And sometimes we do pop stuff. So we don’t just call it big band or that kind of thing because we try to cover more bases than just playing big band charts.

I teach our Music Theory and Composition class and the AP Music Theory and Composition. And it’s kind of neat, we’re on a trimester system so I don’t teach all these classes year round. But I teach a class called American Popular Music, which is basically how did we get to where we are today through the 20th century. So that’s kind of a neat class. I teach kids who maybe they’re guitar guys or drum or keyboard guys but aren’t necessarily in my other groups, or kids that are just interested in knowing more about kind of how pop music has evolved. So it’s just a way for me to get to know some of the other kids.

When you were in school, were you playing in any kind of pop combos or side projects, or were you pretty studious about just band and orchestra music?

That’s one thing; if I had it to do again I wish I had done more of that. And I try to encourage our kids to do that. I try to give those kids an outlet to do that and encourage them to do that. Because that’s one thing I really feel like I missed, is just being a part of what Scott, our orchestra teacher, and I kind of call it functional music, “Can you just get together with three or four folks and just make music?”

And so many kids that do the classical side of things can’t really do that. And I think we miss out on what it feels like to really make music. We’re trying to make a great tone or we’re trying to play technical passages and all those things we think about from a classical standpoint, but we don’t experience the raw emotion of making music with other people. I wish I had done that, but unfortunately I really didn’t.

When did you start improvising with other people? When did you move past that point of just sight-reading and being able to noodle and jam?

As an undergraduate at ASU for most of the years I was there my roommate was a jazz guy who was little older than me, he was there working master’s work when I was doing undergraduate work and was as far towards the jazz end of things as I was more toward the classical side. And he’s actually now the head of the jazz program at ASU. I always admired the things he was able to do not reading music, improvising and that sort of thing. But I never really took advantage of that opportunity in college either and really for a lot of the time that I taught through high school, until I was at Ledford High School in Davidson County probably a good ten years into teaching. I started a jazz program there and was really learning with the kids. I knew some things, but as far as ever having been a jazz musician or being a part of a group like that, I’d never really done that until we started the jazz program there.

How did you end up creating a music program at Reagan High School?

In 2005 I moved to the Winston-Salem school system and taught in a middle school there for one year, as Reagan was a brand new high school. I served on the school improvement team before the school opened to basically plan the schedule, order instruments, working with the other departments to basically create the school from the ground up, which was an exciting thing to do. It’s interesting, I’ve had several calls from directors either interested in applying to start new schools or they’ve been hired to open new schools to ask questions about doing that. And sort of my answer has become, “I’m so glad I did it, I don’t ever want to do that again.” It was exciting. I am glad I did it, but at the same time it’s so much work to start from the ground up.

I really thought I was going to retire there. I basically had started the program from day one and it was just a community that was really right for a great program. And now they’re just celebrating their tenth year and three full concert bands, a marching band of 150, three full jazz groups. We started a jazz festival there called the City of the Arch Jazz Festival that’s just rocking. We were running two stages all day at the time and the folks that were there now are still doing the same thing. And so it’s just a great community for music and very supportive.

Tell us about the North Carolina School of Science and Math.

WireImage The School of Science and Math is a unique school, we were the first state-sponsored residential school in the country that started in 1980. So we only teach junior and seniors. Kids apply their sophomore year from across the state and, if they get into the school, the state pays for everything: room, meals, board, and tuition. Academically it’s consistently one of the top 15 and 20 schools in the country and our kids attend great colleges. Most of them do not go on to be music majors. We have a few that do; most of our kids that are in the music department do continue to play their instruments, at least at the collegiate level. And really our goal and philosophy is we at least want them to be quality music consumers. Because if they’re going to be the engineers, the doctors, they’re going to have the opportunity to support good music and be the people who continue to attend those concerts and hopefully play in community groups and that kind of thing. That’s really what we try to encourage, for students to be either lifelong musicians or supporters of good music.

How do you think having a quality, high-end music program at a STEM academy supports the STEM curriculum?

I could talk quite a lot about that. There’s a lot going on in the brain that doesn’t go on in any other activity besides music where you’re using both sides of the brain simultaneously and it’s just there are a lot of cool things happening. I actually am working with several people in our math department on some pretty high, in the higher classes of math, to incorporate some music concepts in the math classroom. We’re actually presenting at the National Math Conference. I never thought I would say that. I kind of aspire to hopefully present at music conferences, and I’ve done some of that certainly the past few years, but never thought I’d say, “Hey, I’m presenting at a math conference.” But we’re actually presenting in San Francisco later in April.

Some of the things we’ve been working on are about how using compositional tools in music are similar to something in math called transformation of functions and how they graph in ultra-graphs using transformations of functions. It’s kind of like what we do when we invert melodies or retrograde, going backwards, or retrograde inversion or that kind of thing, some things we talk about in music composition. There’s a direct correlation.

For a STEM school, especially a residential program so unique, this must have raised a lot of questions for you as a music educator before taking this position.

I was actually hesitant when I first applied for the job and went through a couple rounds of interviews, because I had a great job. Three years ago at my then current job, I had just started a program, got all new equipment, great community. In my final interview with the chancellor, he said, “We’ve got to have a quality arts program or kids that qualify to come here are going to stay at home to stay in their music program.” And at that point I said, “You get it, where do I sign?” And it’s true. Our kids, band, choir, and orchestra, all do well at the regional and state level for all-state band and that sort of thing.

Is technology is a part of what you’re doing, since it’s a STEM school?

Yeah, it’s really cool. Actually Scott Laird, that’s the orchestra guy, teaches that class. It’s funny; I used to try to keep up with the latest technology, things in music and that sort of thing, until I got to Science and Math. It’s really neat; we actually have a recording studio at the school in the music department. So he does offer a class that’s sort of digital editing, digital recording kind of thing. And again, the students that are in music but maybe they’re not the greatest performer, they’re into computers and music or some kind of technology, then it’s a great class for those kids. And really given the type of school that we are, we’re fortunate. So many other schools’ hands are tied, they’ve got a certain curriculum they have to do. Pretty much if we submit a class that we want to offer, we have to present why it’s worthy of doing that and to create all the documentation for making that happen, but we have the freedom to be able to do that. And the students that can’t understand those things and appreciate the cross-curricular things that are going on, the students that we have get that.

Is student input on choosing repertoire important in your program?

It is. That’s probably one of the most difficult aspects of his job because obviously they’re all good students academically, but some of them are coming from great programs in the Raleigh area or the Charlotte area, they’ve been studying since they were small kids. The others are coming from more rural areas; they probably didn’t have a band with complete instrumentation. They’re smart students and they played okay, but they’re coming from different backgrounds. So trying to find literature that challenges the first student I mentioned but not leave behind the other student is — everybody has that challenge to a certain extent, but I think it’s unique in our situation because we’re getting students from literally 100 different counties.

How did you find out about the Grammy Award honor?

That’s actually a story I’ve tried to really tell anybody that will listen. Sarah Stafford is the former student’s name that nominated me. It never entered my mind that she would even want to be a music teacher, or any of the other folks that have done that. They did well in our class, they hung out in the band room any time the door was open. And there are a lot of those kids doing that. Particularly until they get to maybe juniors or seniors in high school, and then they start talking about where they’re going to school and what they’re going to major in. And then obviously you’re helping them prepare auditions and that kind of thing. But certainly not as a beginner in the first three or four years, that never entered my mind.

Sarah went on to major in music, and was a really good middle school band director. When somebody chooses to do what you do and does it well, that itself is a pretty priceless reward. And I’ve been fortunate to have quite a few students that either our music teachers or just teachers and general because really to me we’re teaching kids hopefully to be productive citizens.

But actually as of this winter Sarah is not teaching anymore. Just the climate of education really nationally, but particularly in North Carolina since ‘08 with the then downturn in the economy, the relatively new teachers in particular have not gotten much of a raise. She’s married to a band director; they’ve got a couple kids. So she’s actually left teaching to go into fundraising. Which it’s interesting, I think she was really concerned that I would be disappointed in her. And she called and we talked about it and I said, “Look, you’re still going to be helping kids, you’re just going to be doing it in a different way. And you’ve got to look after yourself and your family.” If that nucleus is not happy, then none of the rest of it really matters in the long run. But the sad part is that she loves teaching, she was a great teacher, her kids loved her, she was doing well at the region and state level when her kids would go for like the thing I was judging today, when they would go for that. So it’s unfortunate that our state has lost a great teacher because she literally couldn’t afford to continue to teach.

How will this Grammy honor change or will it change what you do?

Well, it has the past month, for sure, in all the best of ways. For me it’s not so much about winning and all the other finalists didn’t win, or semi-finalists. I kind of feel like I was chosen to be the spokesperson for all these amazing people. Because you read all the things they’re doing and they’re all doing incredible things for music education. So I kind of feel like I just get to be the mouthpiece to say, “Hey, look at all this great stuff  that’s going on in music education.” It’s important. It’s worth the extra effort. I spoke to the North Carolina State School Board; they presented me with a plaque and asked me to come to one of their meetings. I said sometimes it’s not the most financially easy-to- support, it’s not convenient sometimes to have these programs, but it’s definitely important. And of course they all agreed at the time, hopefully they’ll continue to support what we’re doing. But I really feel like my place is to sort of try to be an ambassador for music education, and I’ve done that for most of my career in North Carolina. So the Grammy honor allows me to do that on a more regional and national level. The National Association for Music Educators asked me if I would be their keynote speaker next fall at the national conference in Texas.

Is music an elective at your current school?

It is an elective at our school, yeah. Students have to take five core courses, and then they can take as many or as few electives as they want. It’s the students that choose to be there.

Do you have attrition issues because of the pressure of the of the STEM academic focus?

We do. It’s really more about providing that outlet for the kid and understanding that it may or may not be their priority. And we just want to be that — it’s kind of like more of the guys getting together and playing. Our groups play really well; I don’t want to say that they don’t. But if they’ve got to go to tutorial in this part of rehearsal, they go to tutorial. The academic rigor really is intense. And the kids know that coming in. And most of these kids want that, they want to be pushed. But we just have to make sure we understand how music fits into their lives with where it is they want to go ultimately. So we can have those serious conversations about, “Is it more important for us to play grade six music to you as the leaders this year or is it more important for us to play easier music and master the music more?” And the answer is not always the same. And that’s okay as long as we all understand, “Here’s what we set for ourselves,” and then we can decide, “Did we meet that goal?”

Nominations for the 2017 award are now open at grammymusicteacher.com.


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