Kent Knappenberger: The Interview

Inaugural Music Educator Award recipient reveals why he is thankful for the honor and discusses his approach to teaching and advocacy for music education
  • Photo: Michael Kovac/
    Kent Knappenberger
January 23, 2014 -- 4:13 pm PST
By Laurel Fishman /

Kent Knappenberger of Westfield Academy and Central School in Westfield, N.Y., is the recipient of the first annual Music Educator Award presented by The Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Foundation. The award was established to recognize current educators (kindergarten through college, public and private schools) who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in schools.

"The award goes a long way, and will continue to go a long way, in recognizing the important job music educators do," says Knappenberger.

Knappenberger will travel to Los Angeles to receive the award at the Special Merit Awards Ceremony & Nominees Reception on Jan. 25 and  attend the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony on Jan. 26. In an exclusive interview, Knappenberger discussed advocacy for music education, his approach to teaching and his thoughts on being selected as the inaugural Music Educator Award recipient.

How does it feel to win the first-ever Music Educator Award?
I'm very honored! It's a great chance to act as an advocate for music education on many levels, one of which is that it's always under threat as music programs get cut with regularity. Receiving the [Music Educator Award] gives me opportunities to talk about the reasons why [music is important].

The award goes a long way, and will continue to go a long way, in recognizing the important job music educators do. That's the biggest thing to be thankful for.

How would you describe your overall approach to teaching music?
I believe music to be part of a life well-lived, and I take a rather broad definition of music as life abstracted through sound. This makes for a kind of overarching umbrella in how music is taught in my classroom. There are basically three ways we experience music: through listening, composing or performing. The basis of all our classroom lessons ultimately has to be one of those actions.

What are your top priorities in advocacy for music education?
There are three: advocating for music education's existence in educational systems, for reaching a broader-based student population and for a paradigm shift in how we normally think of music in schools.

How does advocacy work in your school?
We've made it a point to advocate for our own programs, but the high involvement of our students and their successes have created their own advocacy. I've been best able to advocate by setting ourselves as an example of what happens when a broader student population is successfully targeted. 

How do you get significant numbers of students studying music?
There are kids in our music classes who play in band, others who sing in choir and some who don't participate in any traditional performing ensemble but are enthusiastic learners in the personal music skills taught in general music. This aspect of music education is sometimes looked at as the place where kids get dumped. It's just because teachers haven't known what to do.

Music class is something lively and interesting in which anyone can participate. It's doing music, living it and making it happen. For instance, any student who takes a general music class can be in our hand bell ensemble. There are no prerequisites. Annually, more than half our high school is involved in music classes. 

What's one of your most satisfying achievements as a music educator?
In 2011 we submitted a recording of our American/Celtic string band to perform at our annual New York State School Music Association music teachers conference. Traditionally, the top performing ensembles featured at NYSSMA conferences are from well-funded suburban districts and are fed by a system of younger choirs, bands or orchestras.

Students in top performing ensembles usually are selected by audition, but the string band at our school is made up of any interested students taking general music class, including all kinds of learners, from college-bound accelerated students, to students with autism, to students in special education, to every other type of learner imaginable.

Was the community at large included?
Grandparents, parents, teachers in our school, some amateur musicians, home-schooled students, and even local professional musicians all participated. NYSSMA accepted us, and we were able to share this different kind of inclusive, intergenerational, community-based ensemble with an appreciative audience of music educators. Based on this performance, we were invited to perform at the biennial All-Eastern music conference the following year.

So the community involvement was effective in building grassroots music education advocacy?
Yes, and if music education is going to survive, we have to think about how we can help the general population learn and become engaged. If we do, public support will grow. I've seen it happen, and this was one way to accomplish that.

How do you meet the challenges of funding music programs? 
I compose and arrange, and I found out that if I write the arrangements for our school, I'm free to use the sheet music budget to purchase equipment. That's how we ended up with a set of steel drums, hand bells, secondhand computers, and a battery of folk instruments, including Celtic harps, hammered dulcimers, mandolins, guitars, Irish whistles, and more!  

Our ensembles that perform out of district make it a priority to be a model of how to use our funding most economically to impact the most students. 

How do you keep students motivated?
An important aspect of music study and effective learning is where the students' own motivation and ability to find meaning and personal relevance are central to their learning and musical process. So we listen, compose and perform with purpose, and try to model that purpose in "real life" and in-life use as much as possible.

This may be making recordings, learning a piece of a student's own choosing, or composing a melody for lyrics written by another student. Students can begin a cycle of self-competency in music, which often is a key to future learning. 

Would you elaborate on music study as a gateway to self-competency?
Adolescents' likes and dislikes are often centered in areas where they feel worthy or competent. The musical experience of an adolescent should be filled with ample opportunity to learn, so we try to create an environment where the outcome is undetermined and the actions of the student are all-important in controlling how things turn out. For instance, are we following a recipe, or is there the excitement of many possibilities of a successful performance? How will the composition sound once we write it? The possibilities are endless.

Teachers owe our students to accept them as they are, yet see what they might become [and] to create opportunities for those young persons to see in themselves what they didn't see before.

What are some ways your students' endeavors have extended beyond the classroom?
Twenty years ago, I learned that three churches in our small town had hand bell choirs. We taught students to play hand bells so those kids with church involvement can play music there, and students also play in other community hand bell ensembles.

A few years ago, a large number of our students were involved in a fundraiser to fight world hunger. I offered to write and direct a musical the kids could perform rights- and royalty-free and donate the proceeds. Not only did they contribute several thousand dollars to fight world hunger, they also used proceeds to support acquiring malaria nets for Africa, providing scholarships to a local preschool, and building a well in Africa.

It's inspiring to see how music can bring kids together to create something special and to do good in the world. I love my job!

(Laurel Fishman is a writer and editor who specializes in entertainment media. She is an advocate for the benefits of music making, music listening, music education, music therapy, music-and-the-brain research, and music and interdisciplinary studies.)

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