How music education is crucial to the future of live music

Member to Member

Volume 117, No. 11November, 2017

Joseph Rutkowski Jr.

Joseph Rutkowski leads the orchestra (above) and other ensembles in the Great Neck public schools.

I’m no genius. I’m just a musician who cares about the future of live music. I make my living as a music educator, but I consider myself a musician first, teacher second.

And I think I might have a plan of action on how to promote the appreciation of live music: foster conservatory training in the public schools for music performance students (the kids in the band class or orchestra class).

I’ve been lucky to have been born into a musical family. My grandfather, father and uncle  all played music together. All I wanted to do was be a musician. When I was in high school, I was enthralled by the music used in movies. Burt Bacharach was my favorite composer (“What’s New Pussycat,” “Casino Royale,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” etc.).

I first went to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. I got into the music education program, but my real goal was to be a composer. My secret plan was to write film music, try it out with my high school orchestra, and then ditch my teaching career when my big break in Hollywood came!

But I started to get bogged down in classes and I missed having the time to practice. I transferred to Mannes College here in NYC and became a performance major. After graduation, I did freelance gigs as a concert clarinetist and cocktail pianist. When I decided to settle down to get married and raise a family, I decided to go back to school and get my certification to teach. My best friend, trombonist and former Local 802 Trial Board member Jay Leon, warned me that he knew too many club date musicians whose day job was teaching and all they did was complain about how much they hated that work. I had another friend who loved practicing and playing his saxophone at night, but taught English in a high school during the day. “Joe!” he shouted, “You are making a horrible mistake! You love to practice and play concerts. You are going to be too tired at the end of your school day to do anything like that. And the parents are not going to let you program Shostakovich or Wagner. All they’re going to want is to hear ‘Jingle Bells’ at the winter concert.”

Well, I said thank you to my friends, but got a job teaching high school band and orchestra anyway. After 34 years of this gig (and 42 years of teaching music overall), I am proud to say that I have 160 students who thrive on the conservatory style of training I got 45 years ago from Mannes.

I also have to credit my first music chairman at Stuyvesant High School, Max Watras, who was also a conservatory-trained clarinetist. As a student teacher, I observed him requiring all the band and orchestra students to play nothing but scales and exercises for two years before they got to be in the symphonic band or symphony orchestra. My first day started out so depressing when I saw these teenagers struggling to please their teacher by playing boring exercises. Previously, I thought I would have a ball conducting music, not scales. But when I saw the older students arrive for symphonic band, they had a spring in their step. They grabbed their horns and folders and got seated within two minutes for the downbeat. Watras started out with the scales and boy, did the kids sound great. He spent seven or eight more minutes with various articulation and tuning exercises and randomly testing individuals. Some players really had impressive tone quality and dazzling technique. And some were obviously lacking in preparation. They were put on notice to get with the program and practice!

Watras then got down to business. The students started sight reading transcriptions of Tchaikovsky, von Suppé and Saint-Saëns. They sounded nearly ready for performance. In a short span of 30 minutes, I realized that this was the key to success.

I taught (and learned!) at Stuyvesant High School for eight years, honing my skills as a music educator. After a visit of educators and administrators from the Great Neck public schools, I was offered a position in Great Neck to revive a high school instrumental program that was “dying on the vine.” (Those were the words used by superintendent Dr. William Shine as he told me what had happened to their elite music program after their longtime director had died.) Luckily, the middle school music chairman and instrumental director, Earl Higgins, was also a conservatory-trained clarinetist and did a marvelous job of getting the younger players to value great music by having them play his own arrangements of Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Stravinsky and Copland. He encouraged me to use the conservatory approach also.

My first year assignment in Great Neck was to teach all the orchestra and band classes from grades 6 to 12. Earl Higgins had retired and I was also replacing the interim high school teacher. There were not enough students to hire two separate teachers. I tried the conservatory approach in all the classes. It had been like pulling teeth in high school, but in middle school it was a complete disaster. The students started quitting in droves. When I consulted Earl about my predicament, he urged me to abandon the conservatory approach in the middle school, but stick to it in the high school. The younger kids stayed in band and orchestra only as long as we played “music,” but the high school kids could see the benefit of knowing all the major and minor scales and arpeggios. After four months, they were able to prepare a Beethoven symphony for their concert.

Then something fateful happened. I was able to take our high school orchestra and band to the elementary school for a concert. I called it the “young people’s bus tour.” When the little children saw the older musicians dressed in tuxedos and gowns (at my insistence) and heard them play Beethoven, they got so excited that there was a huge increase of enrollment in the next year’s band and orchestra classes at that elementary school.

For the next few years, the numbers were still low, but I kept up the “fun” stuff in middle school and the serious approach in the high school. I also repeated the bus tour. All of my high school groups gave concerts to all the feeder elementary schools that second year.

Finally, the district hired another music teacher. This teacher had eight years of experience teaching middle schoolers and he helped me find more ways to motivate that age. By the third year, the middle school sixth grade class was showing the benefits of those bus tours.

By my eighth year of teaching, the numbers were so large that the district hired another full-time teacher to take over the middle school classes. I was then able to focus on the high school. I started a chamber music class that is still going strong today. (We meet at 7:15 a.m.!) As the years went by, the numbers of students in the middle and high school instrumental classes soared. I saw evidence of positive peer pressure. The kids were encouraging each other when it came to the hard work of drilling scales and exercises, singing our parts, practicing conducting, and listening to excerpts of great performers. These days, my orchestra class is able to read through all nine symphonies of Beethoven every fall. We spend one week on each symphony before turning to our winter concert music repertoire by early November. The band class does the same with pieces by Holst, Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger, John Phillip Sousa and Karel Husa. And the chamber music class reads through the wind and string serenades by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Gounod, Mendelssohn and Stravinsky.

On Friday mornings, we go down to the lobby of the school and play for the students and staff entering the building. We start off with classical serenades in September and then move on to jazz standards. (I make sure that the violinists, violists and cellists learn how to improvise also.)

By December, the class is sight reading holiday music, and in the spring we move on to playing music by the Beatles and other 1960s musicians. The high school students, teachers, custodians and secretaries enjoy hearing our live music concerts in the lobby because they know it’s Friday and the weekend is coming.

Besides our regular concerts, our lobby concerts and our ongoing “bus tours,” we play during commencement as well. We play the usual repertoire –“Pomp and Circumstance,” Sousa marches, Broadway music, pop tunes, and more – as the graduates toss their caps and march out. But we also play  a short arrangement of works the senior musicians choose. Last year, we played excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Holst’s “Jupiter” and Bizet’s “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.” I tell the students that it is our biggest chance for exposure. All of the seniors and their families are there. So is every teacher, Board of Education member, and central administration staff. Ninety percent of those people never show up to our regular concerts. But at graduation, they are all there trapped with nowhere to escape. The truth is that they are relieved to hear an enthusiastic performance from these teenage musicians after having to sit through countless speeches, some of which might bore them to tears.

Everyone in this school is part of the culture of live music, not just the music students. Our audience of fellow students, faculty, administrators and staff is hearing our repertoire and internalizing it. They are memorizing jazz standards without even knowing it. They are hearing classical music and getting it burned into their brains. When they hear these pieces on TV or in commercials or movies, they say to themselves, “I’ve heard this before!” or even “I’ve played this before!” This familiarity turns into pleasure. Will this help with the future of live music? I hope so!


The “conservatory method” of music education involves setting high standards for kids and using rigorous exercises. It assumes that students are serious about music and have the capacity to perform at a high level with enough practice. The elements below may seem very basic, but they are indeed challenging for kids. With enough practice, these building blocks get the students ready for the highest repertoire:

  • Practicing all scales (major and minor) and all seven modes (Ionian, Dorian, etc.)
  • Learning how to play scales in thirds, and practicing arpeggios
  • Tuning exercises, including having the students sing various intervals, both isolated and in harmony
  • Learning how to conduct
  • Both sight-singing and sight-reading
  • NAME THAT TUNE: the teacher turns on the local classical radio station and the students listen in real time to what’s playing. They try to guess the style (Baroque, Classic, Romantic, 20th Century, etc.) and they discuss the music.

Joseph Rutkowski Jr. first joined Local 802 in 1976. (His late father Joseph Sr. was also a longtime member.) Rutkowski won the U.S. Presidential Scholar Teacher Award in 2004 and has also won teaching awards from the Long Island Music Hall of Fame and the Harvard Club of Long Island.

To submit an essay for consideration in Allegro’s “Member to Member” column, send an e-mail to Allegro editor Mikael Elsila. We’ll have more thoughts from other Local 802 members who are music teachers in subsequent issues.