Kent Knappenberger just won the first-ever Music Educator Grammy Award for his all-inclusive approach to music education.
Not many had heard of Westfield, a tiny community in the northwest corner of New York, before this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. With a population just shy of 5,000, the small town has quietly produced a number of serious musicians while fostering a unique respect for the arts. It wasn’t much surprise to residents, then, when the music world finally took notice in January, when the Recording Academy presented Westfield Academy and Central School choral director Kent Knappenberger with the first-ever Music Educator Grammy Award.
Knappenberger, a distinctive choice with his soft-spoken demeanor and unmissable beard, holds unique qualifications for the award, and is a telling choice for the future of music education.
“I believe in this overarching thing called ‘being a musician’ that is bigger than just being a singer in group,” he says, and his overall vision is a holistic approach that has so often been tough to achieve in many curricula.
Pioneering a well-rounded General Music program at Westfield Academy and Central School that is aimed at reaching as many students as he could (as well as providing as broad a selection of pathways to choir as possible), Knappenberger has established what he refers to as a “culture of musicians.” An underlying theme to all musical pursuits is to get students locked into what he calls a “cycle of competency.”
Knappenberger, who currently lives on his own small farm with his wife and nine adopted children, began his college work studying to be a farmer, but eventually earned a degree in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He arrived in Westfield 25 years ago and now hosts a wide-ranging program from sixth grade throught 12th that includes almost every style of vocal music imaginable. His groups have performed across the country and at many all-state events to wide acclaim.
Choral Director caught up with Knappenberger this spring to discuss his ideas for choral music and education in general, as well as the experience of the unique (and pace-setting) Grammy recognition.
Kent Knappenberger: The area has always had a strong musical culture. Among our grads is a guy who graduated from high school about 10 or 11 years before I got here who has been nominated for Tony awards and is a Broadway composer (Michael John Lachuisa). I don’t think it just happened. The culture has been strong musically and in areas like its community theatre. For a really small town, it was all kind of happening. Welch’s – the grape juice company – had their world headquarters here. Because of that, there was a different cultural consciousness. They pulled out all their roots and moved to Concord, Mass. in the early ‘80s and that changed the complexion of the town as I inherited it. But there was an attitude towards growth, so when I asked to do things or add things, especially things that were a little bit different, the answer I always got was, “Sure, we’re behind you! Go try it.”
When you first began there, was your vision similar to your current program?
I would say that what it looks like now isn’t exactly contrary to my vision back then, but I do think I was pretty clueless. I thought we should have really high-quality music for our kids even though we’re not suburbia. The other thing was that we would open up opportunities for kids in high school.
What do you mean by “opportunities”?
It has to do with your own musical skill and your musical consciousness. So whatever we were going to do, that was going to be the unifying concept. So we have kids learning a lot of musical skills that aren’t necessarily related to choir, but when we go to sing, our choirs sound the way they do because all these kids have these diverse musical skills. When 25 percent of our grads every year do the state sequence in music (which is a crazy percentage), and two-thirds of our kids in choir or band are doing the state sequence, they’re showing up to the performing groups with a very functional skill set.
What does the state sequence in music mean for New York students?
They have to have at least three credits, and one of those has to be “upper level.” That typically means an upper level theory class or a class called “Foundations of Music,” which is a combination of music history and theory. There are also classes for composition, ear training, and so on.
You end up doing a lot of your own arranging and composing for the group. Is that pretty consistent, or does it seem to ebb and flow depending on the year?
It depends on what’s available, especially with middle school boys. I call it “deranging.” No offense to the publishing industry, but as far as music that really attends to adolescent boys’ voices, there’s a lot out there that I like, but there’s not a lot that really meets the needs of the kids. I don’t want to sound like I’m doctoring up people’s stuff, but I guess I am. I learned this from another choral director: we can sing the published arrangement but we might have a totally different bass part. Some years I can walk into the boys’ choir and there might be 10 boys with changed voices. Some years there are only three. Sometimes, of the three, they can sing five diatonic pitches on a good day.
The most important thing is that they are still not just singing an octave lower but still learning to be independent in their own part and singing things that tonally has something to do with the piece and not just guessing on things to reach for down there. So that’s when things I arrange really become important for kids’ success.
What usually goes into the repertoire selection? How far are you trying to push their boundaries, both in terms of ability and taste?
A little of both. I have to figure out where the kids are coming from. The New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) publishes a manual of pieces that are sorted by level of difficulty. So in my mind, I sort of have an idea of where our groups should be singing.
A lot of these kids only listen to the country station. Their family’s music life is the radio. They’re not going to concerts that aren’t Taylor Swift. When I pick pieces that are part of “standard rep,” I try to pick things that are accessible. It’s not too hard if I take time, and it’s nice to have NYSSMA as a resource. For our select choir, I try to find Level Six stuff, and the material we’re singing now is pretty typical of that. That manual helps me create programs that are intelligently diversified, as opposed to finding a standard Renaissance piece to throw in. I want to find the right one.
Are there any genres or composers that you try to sneak into programs whenever you can?
I’m really crazy about Michael McGlynn right now and I’m a big fan of Morten Lauridsen. Everybody and their brother does music by Eric Whitacre and I really like his music, but if we’re going to do a piece by him, it’s going to have to be like, “Stop the presses, we have to devote a lot of time and energy into this.” We have a Select Choir of 30 or so kids and they can handle it, skill-wise. But I think some of his music sounds better with a larger ensemble.
What do find particularly interesting about those composers?
I think there’s something really colorful about composers who use the major 2nd as a standard interval. Our whole musical language isn’t built around that; we’re built around the fourth, the fifth, and the third. If you start doing music that’s from like Eastern Europe – one group is singing an Eastern European piece right now – that major 2nd is the harmony for like 12 measures or something. I really like how they sound and there’s something very shimmery. Likewise, Morten Lauridsen likes to write those 9th chords and so does Michael McGlynn. It just creates a color that is very exciting.
Does that throw the students for a loop?
If you’re singing a C and the guy next to you is singing a D and that’s how it always will be, then you’ll learn it. It’s now part of the musical language they speak.
Do you have any other go-to composers?
For whatever reason, I’m really crazy about Gilbert and Sullivan and Stephen Sondheim. I know there are people who don’t quite feel the same way that I do about musical theater, but to me, as an art form, it’s something that’s very important and uniquely American. Like all art forms, you can find things in it that aren’t that great, but so much of the stuff that Sondheim has written is so engaging for the kids.
I wanted there to be something about music that I could help all kinds of different kids gain access to it. At my school, it was 54 kids in the senior choir and 47 were female. No offense to the females, but what are you going to sing with just 7 boys croaking out their parts? Besides that, what’s going to be commercially available rep that’s going to work for that group? Four parts girls, one part boy?
I thought there had to be a way. Boys should be singing. Men should be singing. Why aren’t they singing? It was a challenge to me immediately. There has to be a way for a boy to have an identity that includes “singer/musician.” Shouldn’t singing be basic to being a human? We all want to sing. That led to a lot of different things, first and foremost being a high-profile boys’ group. I’ll say this about our town now: it’s a very safe place to be a young man and have something cool to do musically.
What was it about the culture that changed and led to so many more males singing?
I think a lot of the subject matter that was in the text available for middle school music was not really engaging to boys. It wasn’t so much that they needed to sing songs about baseball, but they didn’t need to sing songs about, say, a bird coming to their home and taking their dreams up to the sky. A friend of mine and I had a word for that kind of literature – “birdsongs.” If I were a 13-year-old boy in this group, I might want to stick a fork in my eye if I had to sing that song.
Did you just start seeking different rep? Composing your own music?
First of all, I want to say “thank you” for producing Newsies. That has been a crazy part of what we do here. It doesn’t matter who we throw that to – you have this really cool music and it’s done by boys acting like boys singing about boy stuff – delivering the newspaper and fighting for something. Kids start to hop on board with that.
There are other examples beyond that. There’s a country song that our boys’ group is singing right now. It was nominated for a Grammy and I wish it had won. It’s called “I Drive Your Truck” by Lee Brice. When we sing that, we don’t really sing country style; we learn a good bel canto technique so we’re not all of a sudden twanging out anything. I always try to teach good technique. But this is a sentimental song about the death of a guy’s brother and how he deals with it by driving his truck, so when we do that, we talk as a group about how this feeling is sort of unique to being a guy. We grow up thinking we’re not supposed to be crying and look like we can’t handle life’s problems. But this is a song about, “Here’s how I’m going to handle this problem – I’m going to drive my brother’s truck.” So we have this big discussion and they totally dig it. Then, when we perform it, I see these kids offering a piece of themselves that I don’t think they really had to offer before. People cry. Gosh, I cry. They cry. There’s something really important about who you are as a person that this music gets at, and we’re talking about a country pop song.
I like to think that there’s a lot of transference, because we learn how to make ourselves vulnerable in order to get to the music and find a place where we can really connect. When we go talk about something like “Sure on the Shining Night” by Morten Lauridsen, we might say, “What about this text? What does that have to do with me and people hearing it?” Well we’ve already found ways to identify with the text in other works like “I Drive Your Truck.” So that makes music in general a cool place for kids to connect with things.
I realized that when kids were quitting singing, a lot would say, “I suck at singing,” or “My teacher just told me to stand in the back.” I thought that was terrible. What if we treated every subject that way? We’d be the dumbest culture on the planet. In the meantime, whatever we were learning in chorus, this kid hadn’t internalized that he’d developed some competency in this.
This time period, especially in middle school, you’re deciding so much about yourself. These students are being faced with a whole bunch of choices and it’s really a goal of mine to take the word “musician” or “singer” and throw that into the stew of who they are. If they do that then, it stays there. Then some really great things can happen. But often, convincing kids that they have some ability is the toughest battle.
Does it seem like some general music knowledge tends to get kids more interested in other types of performance? Maybe now they know how a composition is built and they want to go try their hand at it from the other side?
I firmly believe that. We get kids who just need an art credit. They just know that they can’t draw, so they show up to take the General Music class. Over the years, so many kids have this experience where suddenly it doesn’t seem scary to them anymore. Suddenly they start to understand something about music. Then they try singing.
With the extra exposure that you have now from the Grammys, what’s the most important thing for you to let people know?
There are kids that are going to make great performances and there are kids that are not. The point is that in order to help justify my position in my curriculum, I need to be able to address the learning of those kids who aren’t as great at performing. I know the national average for high school music involvement is 12 percent. I think that should bother all of us. If my subject is fighting for every inch in the budget, we’ve got to find a way to impact more kids.
That’s easier said than done because there are a lot of people who are totally maxed out. But part of it is making sure that we reach a mentality where we’re willing to accept reaching those kids as an important part of what we do – those kids who don’t already fit the profile of a traditional music student.
When you talk about paradigm shifts in music ed, is that a focus point for that?
We cannot be about having the perfect soloist do the perfect performance all the time. There are times when I do know the perfect performer to pick for a performance – they’re going to knock the solo out of the park and people will leap to their feet and scream and yell and be happy. But that’s not all we’re there to learn. This isn’t to say I set up kids who are incapable for situations that will end in failure, but we need to recognize that, musically, we are all works in progress. I’d include myself in that. We need to find a way in our system to accommodate the fact that it might not always be an impressive performance, but there at least needs to be impressive learning going on.
Anything other thoughts you’d like to share?
Well I’m thrilled that you called because I read your magazine! I learn a lot from it. I’m glad you’re interested in a rural school. There are a lot of us out here and whenever I read about a similar school that’s doing something great, it’s sort of a shot in the arm, so I hope I can do that for somebody else.