March 27, 2011- A couple of years ago, my older son got bumped out of a place at Cal State Northridge because of budget cuts. He had been accepted – recruited – into the highly-acclaimed jazz department at CSUN because of his excellence in music in high school. He was fortunate enough – and worked hard enough – to earn a place in the Hamilton Academy of Music, one of the finest public high-school music magnets in California, if not the entire country. The video I'm posting is of the award-winning performance of his Vocal Jazz group that competed in the Reno Jazz Festival, led by one of the best vocal directors I have ever heard (and, believe me, I've heard a few), R. John Hamilton.
I owe my career in music – the joy of my life – to my music directors in high school; my choir director and my band director. They saw a shy girl who never took band like all the rest of the band and choir kids, and didn't have the confidence to think of herself as a musician or a singer at all, just someone who picked around on the piano when she though no one else was watching, and they literally dragged me into choir and band. They wouldn't let anyone laugh at me because I didn't know how to read music as well as the rest of them; they encouraged me, challenged me, put me into situations that were above my level and made me rise to them. Because of their seeing something in me that I didn't see in myself, I learned how to play jazz; I learned how to sight-sing, and I ended up being one of the 20 best sight-singers in the state of Florida in All-State competition 3 years in a row, and got superiors in both piano and voice at State Contest. It wasn't because I was all that; it was because as teachers, both those directors cared enough to go out of their way to drag me into their programs.
A similar thing happened to my son. He has always been a fine tenor sax player, and he had a wonderful director in middle school. She was a no-nonsense martinet who scared the living daylights out of the kids who didn't really care about music, but she made sure that my son had every opportunity available to him to grow as a player – and made sure that he got into Hamilton Music Academy, where he played in the C jazz band there under the direction of new band director Jim Foschia. My son and Mr. Foschia bonded, and he stayed in that band for the next couple of years to get the leadership opportunities that Jim Foschia saw for him. He gave Sam room to lead and mentor younger students, even though his skills were good enough for the A band. His senior year, though, he moved up to the A band, and he was also recruited into the Vocal Jazz group, the elite singing group at the Academy, even though he had never sung a note in public – because John Hamilton saw something in him that he did not know was there. He did what my directors did for me – he didn't take 'no' for an answer, he challenged Sam, and in regional competition in Reno, Sam ended up winning solo awards for scat-singing. In Monterey, John Hamilton's group took first place and was invited to sing at the actual Monterey Jazz Festival. This was no accident. These are great teachers, who knew how to bring out the best in their students.
A great teacher, with a teacher's heart, is a national treasure and a gift to any student lucky enough to encounter them. They don't make more money than any other teacher; they don't get million-dollar bonuses and corporate jets – yet they contribute to society in a way that none of these lavishly-compensated corporate CEOs would or could ever do in a million years.
But after high school, when Sam had been offered scholarships by many fine schools, when he chose CSUN – he got budgeted out. Because even a couple of years ago, they started chipping away at education at the state level. So now Sam is going to community college to get his gen-eds, and working a day job as well, and hoping he can transfer to a state school.
And Sam was the lucky one.
His younger brother is in the ninth grade, in the same middle school. He is a talented percussionist and guitar player who was just chosen to be in the LA County Honors Symphonic Band, and who would have been going to Hamilton High School Music Academy next year. But it looks like he will probably not get to go there like his older brother did. LAUSD is eliminating its best magnet programs and pink-slipping those same talented and dedicated teachers from whom my older son received a priceless education – not just in music, but in dedication, discipline and excellence.
Sorry, James – no magnet for you. Those greedy public employees have just spent all that money on their pensions and big juicy paychecks, so it's time to 'trim the fat' – you know, education.