Multiple studies have shown that students who participate in high-quality music programs do better in school.
So it seems fitting, considering the veneration thrown the way of pop stars during awards shows, that the Grammy Awards would honor the finest of the country’s music educators.
For the first time, during the week leading up to the Grammy Awards on Jan. 26, that’s exactly what the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation will team up to do. And when the envelope is unsealed, the Grammy could go to a revered teacher from a small school in Chautauqua County.
Kent Knappenberger teaches music students in sixth through 12th grade at Westfield Academy. It’s a small school in Westfield, a small town. It’s not the kind of place one might expect the glitzy Grammys to be interested in. And yet, Knappenberger has made it to the final elimination rounds in the Grammy Music Educator Award competition. He’s one of 10 music educators in the country to have made this list. Most tellingly, Knappenberger was nominated three times – twice by former students, and once by the parent of a former student.
On Wednesday, those students – as well as the faculty of the school, the mayor of the village and several other local dignitaries – gathered for a red carpet ceremony in the school’s auditorium, all in the name of the man they know as “Mr. K.”
The packed auditorium of about 300 erupted in cheers whenever Knappenberger’s name was mentioned throughout a 90-minute ceremony that was peppered with performances from several of the choral ensembles Knappenberger directs, as well as video presentations featuring numerous graduates who have gone on to a life in music and have Knappenberger to thank for getting them started.
And then there was the man of the hour himself, a tuxedo-clad Mr. K., who has a long beard and twinkling eyes. Before the ceremony, he spoke of the love he feels for his job, for his students in particular and of music in general.
“I believe that music can be very important in forming the definition of self,” Knappenberger said. “Just as entire cultures can be defined by the arts, so can the individual. Music becomes a place to learn music, but also a place to figure out who you are, a place to belong, and a place to get some help in interpreting life.”
More than 30,000 nominations were submitted from all 50 states for the Music Educator Award, according to Grammy.com.
That a teacher from a small school in Western New York – Westfield Academy reports an enrollment of roughly 300 students – would make it all the way to the top 10 and the final round is a feat. Knappenberger himself was “blown away” when he realized he was proceeding to the final round.
“Honestly, besides being very happy, I was surprised, and then humbled,” he said. “The next feeling I had was the thought that I might be able to act as an ambassador for something for which I care deeply – music education.”
Knappenberger may have been surprised, but his students were not. Congregating on the red carpet to take pictures prior to Wednesday’s ceremony, many students were eager to discuss the influence Knappenberger has had on them.
“He is so encouraging, so thoughtful and so caring,” said Westfield senior Emma Fermier. “When I started singing for Mr. K, I was so quiet, so shy and so insecure. Now, I’m not. And I have him to thank for that.”
Senior Chelsea Babcock celebrated the “many opportunities to grow, both with music, and as a person” that her time studying with Knappenberger has allowed, while junior Chris Cockram noted that “Mr. K is different, because he uses music as a way to teach us life lessons, and he leads by example, because he is such a good person – a family man and member of the community, and just a generally helpful and caring human being.”
“Mr K always says to us, ‘Don’t just skim the surface,’ ” said senior Chris Kelley. “He always encourages us to go deep into things, and he always makes us feel that we can do whatever we set our minds to.”
Such sentiments appeared to be the majority feeling, a point driven home during the ceremony, when a pair of students took to the podium to read a “top 10 list” of “Life lessons learned from Mr. K.” (These included “It’s OK for guys to sing!” and, in the top slot on the list, “Look at the world with wonder, and never stop looking at it that way.”)
If Knappenberger does win the Music Educator Award, he will be flown to Los Angeles to accept it during a special ceremony. He also would attend the televised ceremony, and receive a $10,000 honorarium. If Knappenberger doesn’t win the trophy, he will still receive a $1,000 honorarium, and Westfield Academy will receive a matching grant.
But whatever happens, Knappenberger is, as he said, “happy to be doing what I’m doing, and happy for the attention that is being focused on our school and our program.”
Westfield is a prototypical close-knit Western New York community, and Knappenberger said he is pleased to be well-known to its residents.
“I love the sense of community in our town and in our school,” he says. “I never feel like I’m part of some huge machine that just cranks out graduates.
“It’s a place for kids to really be nurtured and grow. I don’t mind that when I go to the grocery store, everyone knows what I’m having for dinner. I like that we can share the very business of living as a community.”