Top Teachers, Top Kids

What it's like to teach at the high school that inspired "Fame"

Volume 114, No. 11November, 2014

Kevin Blancq
Blancq by David Leach

Local 802 member Kevin Blancq conducting the LaGuardia High School Senior Jazz Band.

I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where creativity was a daily event and music education was a priority and strongly supported. I try to pass this along to the more than 100 students I teach every day at LaGuardia High School. As many people know, the movie and TV show “Fame” were based on the School for the Performing Arts, which merged into LaGuardia in 1984.

I consider myself a New Yorker, having lived and worked here most of my life, but my childhood and early education is all New Orleans. My dedicated parents, both musicians and teachers, made sure I had a solid foundation in the arts. Mom pushed, Dad was more laid-back, but I do think they wanted me to be a musician even though they often tried to persuade me not to be.

I realized early on that music was for me. As a youngster, just listening to a song on the radio was a life-changing experience. I would study the different sections of a performance and cherish those emotional moments where I could feel the music going through me. Heck, I became a serious “listener” at the ripe old age of eight! And that was just pop radio. In addition, every night I fell asleep to selections by Brahms, Mozart, Prokofiev, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, as my mother practiced her piano repertoire into the wee hours of the morning. This went on for years, and as my taste grew more sophisticated, I branched out and began to explore many different styles and genres. At first, it was never about a specific instrument for me – it was about sound, that intangible thing that came pouring out of my little clock radio, or from mom at the piano in the other room. Soon enough, my room would be filled with sound, day after day, as I recorded myself nonstop on drums, piano and trumpet. Sure, I did all the things that kids love to do, but music was my calling and I knew it.

At nine years old, I promptly quit piano studies after one year because I was the only boy in the class. I thought, the hell with this, I’ll find an instrument that a man should play! Go figure. Soon after, I caught a glimpse of Louis Armstrong on television and decided on the trumpet. For more than a month, I couldn’t even get a sound out of the thing, but after many years of study with a dedicated New Orleans educator named George Jansen, who pushed me week after week, lesson after lesson for eight years, I finally started to get the message that playing an instrument was a calling and that becoming a great player was something I really wanted. Of course, like so many of us, I am still working on that last part.

(Another tribute to Louis Armstrong: in college, one afternoon in my dorm room at the University of North Texas, I broke down crying while listening to Armstrong. His music hit me really hard that day, and I finally began to realize the depth, significance and profound impact of Louis Armstrong’s genius. He has been a constant source of inspiration ever since.)

Have trumpet, will travel! In 1987, I moved to New York to pursue my ambition and found myself among great human beings who are also great artists. I humbly thank Doc Cheatham, Frank Foster, Sahib Shihab, Eddie Bert, Max Kaminsky, Benny Powell, Bob Dorough, Cecil Bridgewater, Count Basie and many others who inspired me to be the person and musician I am today.

I ended up earning a B.A. (from the University of North Texas) and an M.A. (from the Manhattan School of Music), both in performance. Then, in 1998, I stumbled into education with the encouragement of a friend who gave me a job teaching a weekly private student for 45 minutes at the Queens College Preparatory School, two hours each way from my apartment! Later, I got the opportunity to design and teach a music curriculum at Queens for middle and high school students. My 45-minute work day became 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday. It was during this time that my love for teaching became clear to me. I went to Hunter College and enrolled in some valuable education classes.

LaGuardia High School, next to Lincoln Center.

LaGuardia High School, next to Lincoln Center.

In 2002, I was offered a full-time teaching position at LaGuardia High School, where I currently direct the jazz bands and conduct the annual musical. As a public school music teacher for the past 14 years, I have to admit that I love my work. It’s not only work, though, it’s a way of giving back all the wonderful life lessons learned from my teachers, whom you can never adequately thank, but continue hoping you will find a way.

The acclaimed writer and critic Nat Hentoff once called me on the phone after he read a newspaper article about me where I was quoted as saying, “You have to be a person first, before you become an artist.” He was apparently very pleased to see those words in an article about a high school music teacher and I like to think that he found that statement worthy of a heartfelt thank-you. It’s true, no? Kids are so eager to become someone or something, that I often find myself helping them slow down just a bit to enjoy the journey of life more than the destination. You can hear it in their solos every day as though they are talking to you, trying to tell you everything they know in eight bars! The big hurry to get there is more fun slower. Music being the wonderful language that it is, I let the kids learn how to speak with a clear, simple vocabulary before they start improvising endless ramblings. We all learn to speak by ear before reading the printed word anyway, so the same can work for improvisation. “Hey, play your 27 choruses at home in your room, where you reign supreme,” I tell them, “but when you come to class, bring us your best two!”

(And while you’re at it, check your ego at the door, and be here for the right reasons. Be a person first!)

What can I tell you about LaGuardia itself? It’s a dual mission high school, with artistic and academic excellence under one roof. Students choose a major studio in one of these four areas – dance, drama, music or art – and their daily schedules are packed with classes from 8 a.m. until 4:10 p.m., including studio classes. Our music department employs 18 wonderful educators under the leadership of chairperson Ms. Bernice G. Fleischer and our school principal, Dr. Lisa Mars. The music department alone presents more than 20 events per school year, not to mention the numerous theater productions, dance concerts, annual musical, talent shows, art exhibits, and alumni events that pack the school calendar. (Check out our homepage and find some of the best deals in town when it comes to affordable cultural events.)

Teaching at LaGuardia is demanding work – I’ll not deny it – but you know you’re making a difference when year after year, students come back to thank you for pushing them and encouraging them to go the extra mile. When you open the newspaper, turn on the TV, or go online and see your former students’ success stories, you feel some satisfaction that you helped that person. But not just that you helped them, but that there is a little piece of you in their being, in their music, in their art and in their soul. Their lives and all of our lives would be so dull without art in the world. I feel that it is our obligation to provide the best possible educational opportunities for our young people, regardless of cost, politics or sacrifices. I personally consider it a great honor and challenge to be a musician. But being a teacher, which is a very misunderstood profession, is quite possibly the greatest challenge someone can face in their field of study, and I try to face that challenge daily with enthusiasm.

Kevin Blancq has been a Local 802 member since 1987. An endorser of the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, he often leads bands at outdoor rallies and demonstrations. If you’re a music educator and would like to tell your story in Allegro, e-mail Mikael Elsila.