Colyn Fischer: Middle school music teacher and award-winning Scottish Fiddler

imgresThere are many examples of talented musicians who go on to become exemplary music educators. This is certainly true of Colyn C. Fischer, an award-winning violinist from Pennsylvania who now works as a middle school music teacher.

Colyn was born in 1977 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He began to play the violin at the tender age of three, concentrating on Scottish fiddling since the age of five. While just a teen, he studied under a number of notable American Scottish fiddlers, including John Turner and Bonnie Rideout, and several celebrated fiddlers from Scotland, including Ian Powie and Alasdair Hardy.

Following his graduation from Penn-Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pennsylvania, Colyn enrolled at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. There he earned his bachelor’s degree in music performance in violin from Wheaton College in 1999. He completed the requirements for his teaching credential at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 2005.

In 1993, Colyn garnered the first-place title in the American National Scottish Fiddling Championship, Junior Division. In 2005 he won in the open category in Texas, a title which he captured again in 2006 in Ohio.

Colyn first taught music in grades three through eight in the Silver Valley Unified School District in California’s San Bernardino County. He worked there from 2006-2009. Currently, Colyn teaches orchestra at Central Middle School in the San Carlos School District located in San Francisco, California. He also teaches the annual Jink and Diddle School of Scottish Fiddling, and gives private violin and fiddle lessons.

Roberta Flack: Public School Teacher and Grammy Award Winning Music icon

imagesMany people have heard of the Grammy Award-winning songwriter and singer Roberta Flack, whose best-known songs are “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and “Where Is the Love?” But did you know that this famous jazz, folk, and R&B icon was once a public school teacher?

Roberta Cleopatra Flack was born February 10, 1937, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, although she was raised in Arlington, Virginia. Her mother was a church organist, so Roberta grew up in a musical household. At the age of nine, Roberta began to study classical piano, and by the time she was fifteen, she had won a music scholarship to Howard University. She completed her undergraduate work and her student teaching as the first African American student teacher at an all-white school near Chevy Chase, Maryland. Then Roberta accepted a position teaching music and English in Farmville, North Carolina, a gig which paid her only $2,800 per year. She also taught junior high school in Washington, DC, and at the same time she took side jobs as a night club singer. It was there that she was discovered and signed to a contract for Atlanta Records. The rest, as they say, is music business history.

In recent years, Roberta’s contribution to education came when she founded an after-school music program entitled “The Roberta Flack School of Music” to provide free music education to underprivileged students in the Bronx, New York City. 

Roberta Flack: Truly a Chalkboard Champion.

The 2016 Rose Parade: Talented High School Music Directors Present Their Students

Happy New Year, one and all! One of my favorite activities on New Year’s Day is to watch the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, whether in person or on television. I was born in Pasadena, and this unique, flower-inspired parade has always been very special to me. I have many happy childhood memories of standing on the curb on Colorado Boulevard to watch the spectacular floats, outstanding bands, and marvelous equestrian groups go marching by. This year, the theme of the parade is “Find Your Adventure.” I was especially impressed with the many talented high school bands from all over the country that participated in this marvelous parade today. Let’s pay tribute to them!

Launching the parade was the Etiwanda High School Band, which hails from Etiwanda, California. The 200-member Marching Eagle Regiment performed under the direction of Jeremy Hackworth. Jeremy’s students were teamed with Corporate Magic to present the opening act for this year’s parade, performing a drill team sequence and original music composed specifically for the event. “These kids work so hard — not just on the field, but also behind the scenes with their academics and their work schedules,” praises Mr. Hackworth. This talented music director earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and he is currently working on his master’s degree.

Next, parade-watchers were treated to selections of Western-style music performed by the Wyoming All-State Marching Band, directed by Mr. Dan Holroyd. This accomplished composite band, based in Cheyenne, featured 301 students from 32 communities and 27 high schools from around the state. This was the thirteenth appearance of the band in the Tournament of Roses Parade. The students played popular compositions including “The Magnificent Seven,” “Ghostriders in the Sky,” and the theme from the movie “Blazing Saddles.” Mr. Holroyd graduated from the University of Wyoming, and is employed as the Director of Bands at East High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

To continue, Director of Bands Blane Hinton led the brilliant Allen Eagle Escadrille hailing from Allen, Texas. The Escadrille claims to be the largest high school marching band in the United States, boasting a whopping 782 members. “Our philosophy here (at Allen) is we try to make sure that every student of ours gets the opportunity to participate in the marching program,” explained Mr. Hinton. “Plus, the kids are just phenomenal.” This amazing music director earned his degree at Texas Technical University.

Next came the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park Band. Directors David Armbruster and Jonathan Thomann led this accomplished band from Wayne County, Michigan. The band represents three comprehensive high schools: Salem, Canton, and Plymouth, which employs 350 teachers to serve 6,500 students in grades 9-12. This fabulous band has won over 500 awards in the past 16 years, and has performed before Presidents Ronald Reagan, H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Director of Bands Mr. Armbruster earned his bachelor’s degree in music education in 2000 and his master’s degree in 2005, both from Western Michigan University.

The Los Angeles Unified Schools All-District High School Honor Band. This 380-member noncompetitive band is comprised of distinguished student musicians from high schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. The group has been marching in the Rose Parade since 1973. For the past three decades, this group has been marching under the able direction of Director Mr. Tony White. Mr. White worked as a music educator at John C. Fremont High School for ten years. Although he currently works as a professional jazz musician playing the saxophone and clarinet, he is still heavily involved with music and arts education, serving as the music and entertainment coordinator in the LA Unified School District. “The  challenge for me is maintaining both,” he asserts. This chalkboard champion earned his bachelor’s degree from University of California, Riverside, his teaching credential at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and his master’s degree in educational leadership from Pepperdine University.

Hailing from Saratoga High School in the Silicon Valley in California, the 400-member Saratoga High School Marching Band and Color Guard performed under the direction of Michael Boitz. When Michael accepted his position as Music Department Chair at Saratoga High in 1997, there were only eleven students in the entire orchestra program. Fourteen years later, the department has expanded to hundreds of students, as you can see below. “I think it’s an incredible testament to the dedication the community has in our kids,” expressed Michael. “It’s a testament to the support the community gives to the kids and the school as a whole.” Named the 2013 Music Educator of the Year by the California Music Educators Association, Michael graduated magna cum laude from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and earned his master’s degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

The next band to perform was the magnificent Jenks High School Trojan Pride Band from Jenks, Oklahoma, under the direction of Director of Bands Scott Hillock. “The program has grown and improved in the last five years,” informed Scott. “Five years ago it had 112 band members and 12 color guard members. This year, it has a record 240 band members and 45 students in color guard,” he said. Mr. Hillock earned his bachelor’s degree from Southwestern Oklahoma State University and his master’s degree from Southern Methodist University. He has been in charge of bands at Jenks since 2006.

Next, parade-watchers were treated to a performance by the Franklin Regional High School Panther Band. Led by Director Kevin Pollock, this amazing band from Murraysville, Pennsylvania, performed “Walking on Sunshine.” The band this year has approximately 200 musicians, Pantherette dancers, majorettes, silks, and honor guard. “We are excited. We are proud to represent Pennsylvania in ‘America’s New Year Celebration,’ ” Mr. Pollock expressed. “We have a talented group of students who are looking forward to sharing their performance with the huge audience in Pasadena and the television audience around the world,” he said. This talented educator earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has been the music director at Franklin for 28 years.

 The 192 members of the Punahou Marching Band from Honolulu, Hawaii, marched under the direction of Mark Falzarano. Punahou serves students from kindergarten through grade 12, including alumni President Barack Obama, dancer Carrie Ann Inaba, and professional golfer Michelle Wie. Mark earned two master’s degrees from Northern Arizona University and worked as a high school band director in Arizona before moving to Hawaii. Advice for aspiring music directors? Mark urges, “You need to make sure that this is something you need to do, not something that you want to do,” he says. “To be good at being a music teacher is not a responsibility that you can take lightly. If you merely like something, you should not be responsible for the lives of young people,” he advises.
Next came the acclaimed 330-member William Mason High School Marching Band from Mason, Ohio, led by Director Robert Bass. Mr. Bass has had a long career, teaching for an impressive 29 years, 15 of them as Director of Bands at Mason High School. Bands under his direction have performed in Carnegie Hall, Chicago Orchestra Hall, and the Bands of America National Concert Band Festival. A graduate of a small rural high school in Greensburg, Ohio, he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education and performance at the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music, and his master’s degree in music education at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Mr. Bass takes his job as a music educator very seriously. “It is important to me to show students how music is involved in our everyday lives and the positive effects it can have on us,” he says. “I enjoy working with students,” Robert confesses. “In my opinion, it is the most rewarding job on the planet.”
The final high school band to march down Colorado Blvd. was the spectacular Mira Mesa High School Sapphire Sound, under the direction of band leader Ms. Jeanne Christensen, the only woman Director of Bands featured in the parade. This fabulous 210-member composite band represents the entire San Diego Unified School District. The ensemble performed “Ode to Joy” and “America the Beautiful” along the five-and-a-half-mile parade route. “This is the Super Bowl of parades,” says Ms. Christensen. “I couldn’t be more proud of these students.” This talented music educator earned her bachelor’s degree at University of California, San Diego, and her master’s degree at National University.

Congratulations to all these remarkable music educators, their hard-working students, and their supportive families and communities! A Happy New Year to all of them!

Zitkala Sa: Music Teacher and Native American Rights Activist

portrait[1]One of the most amazing chalkboard champions and political activists in American history is Native American Zitkala Sa, whose Indian name translated means Red Bird.

This remarkable educator was born on February 22, 1876, on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her father, an American of European descent, abandoned his family, leaving his young daughter to be raised alone by her Native American mother. Despite her father’s absence, Zitkala Sa described her childhood on the reservation as a time of freedom and joy spent in the loving care of her tribe.

In 1884, when she was just eight years old, missionaries visited the reservation and removed several of the Native American children, including Zitkala Sa, to Wabash, Indiana. There she was enrolled in White’s Manual Labor Institute, a school founded by Quaker Josiah White for the purpose of educating “poor children, white, colored, and Indian.” She attended the school for three years until 1887, later describing her life there in detail in her autobiography The School Days of an Indian Girl. In the book she described her despair over having been separated from her family, and having her heritage stripped from her as she was forced to give up her native language, clothing, and religious practices, and to cut her long hair, a symbolic act of shame among Native Americans. Her deep emotional pain, however, was somewhat brightened by the joy and exhilaration she felt in learning to read, write, and play the violin. Zitkala Sa became an accomplished musician.

After completing her secondary education in 1895, the young graduate enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, on a scholarship. The move was an unusual one, because at that time higher education for women was not common. In 1899, Zitkala Sa accepted a position as a music teacher at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here she became an important role model for Native American children who, like herself, had been separated from their families and relocated far from their home reservations to attend an Indian boarding school. In 1900, the young teacher escorted some of her students to the Paris Exposition in France, where she played her violin in public performances by the school band. After she returned to the Carlisle School, Zitkala Sa became embroiled in a conflict with the Carlisle’s founder, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, when she expressed resentment over the rigid program of assimilation into the dominant white culture that Pratt advocated, and the fact that the school’s curriculum did not encourage Native American children to aspire to anything beyond lives spent as manual laborers.

As a political activist, Zitkala Sa devoted her energy and talent towards the improvement of the lives of her fellow Native Americans. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926 and served as its president until her death in 1938. She traveled around the country delivering speeches on controversial issues such as Native American enfranchisement, their full citizenship, Indian military service in World War I, corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the apportionment of tribal lands. In 1997 she was selected as a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.

Zitkala Sa: a national treasure and a genuine chalkboard champion.

You can read more about the Carlisle Indian School in my book, Chalkboard Champions, available from amazon.