Another year, another Grammy Awards. In the aftermath, there is a little more difficulty involved in clinging to the belief that popular music can be an agent for positive change in the world. It is what it is, and whatever. A vulgar display of powerlessness. And for the most part, a frustrating celebration of mediocrity.
The Grammys did offer one shining moment, though. It came during that portion of the show when most viewers at home tend to zone out, or perhaps go grab a beer and refill the chip bowl, and the folks in the expensive seats at the ceremony do whatever it is rich folks at a ritzy affair do when they aren’t particularly interested in what’s happening on stage. (Rattle their jewelry and vogue for the cameras, perhaps?)
Yes, it was the inevitable arrival of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences President Neil Portnow, who shows up every year to make some sort of speech, invariably of the self-congratulating, “Wow, isn’t it great how we’re here honoring the best of the best in modern music?” variety. Out walked Portnow on Sunday night, and the collective groan may not have been audible, but it was implied. Ryan Seacrest arriving with him didn’t help matters for Portnow, and oh, wait, there’s Justin Timberlake, too. That got the crowd’s attention a bit, but I somewhat cynically assumed that Timberlake was just fulfilling his part of the trade arrangement that allowed him to treat this year’s Grammys as an extended advertisement for his forthcoming new album and his “return to music.”
Ah, but this would turn out to be something more than that. The three men stood together and made an announcement. Next year, for the first time, the Grammy Foundation (of which Seacrest is, it turns out, “honorary board chair,” meaning “figurehead,” I presume) and the Recording Academy will partner to present the Music Educator Award – in essence, a Grammy for music teachers.
There was applause for this, naturally, but not enough, in my estimation. To be frank, I nearly fell off my chair. Sure, the Grammys have long been involved in music education – they even offer young musicians an opportunity to partake in Grammy Camps held in Los Angeles and New York City each summer – but offering an actual Grammy to the poor, downtrodden music educator, the man or woman who might make all the difference in a young musician’s life but never come close to getting rich in the process? That’s a big step. And it’s the closest the Grammys have come to their original mandate – to honor and foster creativity in the musical arts – in a good while.
There’s more good news, too – this Grammy will not be bestowed as the result of an inside job, a behind-closed-doors summit of dubious merit. It will in fact be based on a nomination process that directly involves you, me, us. To wit, from the official Grammy announcement: “Anyone can nominate a teacher – students, parents, friends, colleagues, community members, school deans and administrators – and teachers are also able to nominate themselves.”
That transparent process ought to keep it more real, ought to ensure that a deserving teacher is afforded the opportunity to be pulled from parochial anonymity into the spotlight normally reserved for the likes of hip-hop entrepreneurs and irritable divas, at least for one glorious night. The winning teacher will be flown to Los Angeles to accept the award, will attend the Grammys and receive a $10,000 honorarium. The first nine runners-up will each receive a $1,000 honorarium, too.
It’s very significant that the Grammy Foundation and the Recording Academy are shining a light on music educators in this country. As a musician and as a parent with a child heavily involved in music, I’ve witnessed firsthand the effect the right teacher, who is in it for the right reasons, can have on a young person. The teachers I’ve encountered work tirelessly to bring out, and then to subsequently nurture, the talents often lying dormant in their students. In many cases, they do so without much in the way of long-term security, as constant threats to arts budgets in public schools can leave them wondering if they’ll still have a gig from year to year.
In the Amherst Central School District, where my son goes to school, I’ve been consistently moved by the combination of skill, patience and optimism displayed by the music educators at both the elementary and middle school levels. (Deanna Blanchett, Patrick O’Donnell, Paul Biddle and Jeffrey Palmer have all worked with my son, and I couldn’t be more impressed by both their methodologies and the end results of those methodologies. In my estimation, they all deserve a Grammy.)
It should also be noted that many of the most gifted music educators work outside of public and private schools – offering private lessons, working at various music camps in the area, leading bands that provide young, developing musicians a chance to strut their stuff in public.
A child’s music education is certainly the result of a community effort. This is something that is all too often taken for granted, but it is nonetheless true. Kudos to the Grammy Foundation and the Recording Academy for getting things right, in this instance.
The nomination process is open through April 15. You can nominate your favorite music educator, and read the guidelines, at GrammyMusicTeacher.com. And you should.