At George Mason High School in Falls Church, Virginia, the halls are alive with the sound of music — or, more recently, selections from Les Miserables and the Nutcracker Suite – thanks to the efforts of music director and GRAMMY Music Educator Award nominee Mary Jo West.
George Mason is a small high school with a big music program, offering everything from jazz, pop and symphony to wind and percussion ensembles, with West as the sole conductor. She also leads the high school’s music course for its International Baccalaureate program, where her students develop their knowledge and potential as musicians through composition, performance and critical analysis of music.
West has always been passionate about music (she says she first started making melodies banging pot lids together at age two) but it’s her passion for her students that won her the nomination for the first ever GRAMMY Music Educator Award, which was announced at last year’s GRAMMY Awards by Nell Portnow, president of the Recording Academy and Grammy Foundation, honorary board chair Ryan Seacrest, and six-time GRAMMY winner Justin Timberlake.
West’s current and former students sang her praises in videos submitted to the GRAMMY judges. They described West’s commitment to their success as musicians and as people and of her resolve to keep the arts alive in schools.
“When I received the videos from my students talking about the impact the music programs at George Mason High School had in their lives, some of whom had long since graduated from college, I had already won,” says West, who also plays saxophone and other woodwinds in community productions throughout northern Virginia. “Watching their videos was an extremely emotional experience for me.”
She says after 30 years in music education, some of which was spent in Japan, the best part is the pride she takes in her students’ accomplishments and knowing that she “played a small part in developing who they are as well as their talents.” They are what inspire her to fight so hard for music education and to lobby against legislation that would limit it.
“I am continually working with students to find a way for them to include performing arts in their schedule, but it’s increasingly difficult with the current focus on standardized testing and advanced academic curriculums that don’t allow for the instruction of musical ensembles during the school day,” she says.
It’s especially frustrating to West and other music experts because studies show that arts education increases test scores and creates better learners.
Video: George Mason High School Wind Symphony Performs “Morning Noon and Night in Vienna”
“Thanks to advances in brain imaging, we now know that there is evidence that there is more activity in the brain during a musical performance than there is during most other activities,” she says. “Yet even with this knowledge, there are over a million elementary schools where students receive no musical instruction and advanced curriculums leave little to no room to include musical ensembles in student schedules.”
The new GRAMMY Music Educator Award hopes to keep the music playing by bringing attention to the excellent and impactful work being done by thousands of music teachers across the U.S.
West was one of 10 finalists selected for making a measurable difference in the lives of students, their contribution to the field of music education, their commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in our schools and the impact their music programs have made on their school and community.
If West wins she will be flown to Los Angeles to accept the award at the Special Merit Awards Ceremony & Nominees Reception during Grammy week 2014. She will walk the red carpet and attend the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony. Who would she thank if she were to give an acceptance speech? It’s likely a long list, but near the top would be her own high school band director Kerry Nichols.
“His passion for music was infectious. … I wanted so much to be like him,” West says. “Music was a true calling for him and it left an indelible impression on me.”
Among the 10 finalists, there are five other National Education Association members in the running in addition to West: Charles Cushinery from Ed W. Clark High School in Las Vegas, Nevada; Andrew DeNicola from John P. Stevens High School, in Edison, New Jersey; Kent Knappenberger from Westfield Academy and Central School in Westfield, New York; Katherine Kouns from Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona; and Glen McCarthy from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Find more about the GRAMMY Music Educator Award and how to participate in next year’s competition at: www.grammyintheschools.com/