By Brenna R. Kelly
They don’t have a hit single or a critically acclaimed album, but two Kentucky educators are nominated for a Grammy award.
The two music teachers are among 10 finalists from across the country nominated for the Music Educator Award, presented by the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation.
The award was created three years ago as a way to recognize kindergarten through college teachers who have made significant contributions to music education and have shown a commitment to quality music education.
Kentucky is one of only two states with two finalists: Penelope Quesada, an Orff teacher at Jefferson County’s Lincoln Elementary and Lois Wiggins, band director at Edythe J. Hayes Middle School in Fayette County.
The winner will get to attend the Feb. 15 ceremony in Los Angeles and be awarded $10,000. The nine other finalists will receive $1,000, with their schools receiving a matching grant.
Kentucky’s finalists are longtime music educators who believe music is an integral part of public education that will benefit students in school and in life.
Most of Lois Wiggins’ students come to Hayes Middle School having never picked up a musical instrument. But that’s OK with her.
“I just love training young musicians,” she said. “I know how important that early development is.”
Before coming to Hayes when the school opened in 2004, Wiggins had taught high school band classes for nearly two decades. But the opportunity to start her own program and move closer to her parents was just too good to pass up, she said.
And moving to middle school didn’t scare her.
“I’ve always loved middle school,” she said. “And I think I’ve become my best teacher as a middle school director.”
When she started the program, which is a year-long elective, she taught about 70 students. Today, Hayes has more than 200 students, making it the largest middle school band program in Fayette County.
“We just have a lot of kids who love to play,” she said. “There are going to be some kids who are much more talented than others, but we have to find a way for everyone to contribute in a positive way.”
The program includes a 6th-grade beginner band, a 6th-grade intermediate band for students who started playing in elementary school, a 7th-grade band and an 8th-grade band.
“It’s really been my goal to build a program that the kids are proud to be in,” Wiggins said. “If we give good performances, the kids have a good time. We like to play music that they enjoy, but music that’s going to teach them the concepts that they need to learn.”
While Wiggins wants her students to become proficient in their instrument, she believes they are learning skills beyond how and when to play the right note.
“Just what it does for kids in terms of their cooperation skills, they have to see a symbol on a page then they have to interpret how long it’s supposed to go, what buttons to push down, how to make it sound good, how to make it blend with other people,” she said. “There’s a team building part of it and it’s just good exercise for your brain.”
Wiggins was nominated for the Grammy award by a parent of one her 8th-grade trumpet players whose older sibling also was in Wiggins’ class. While she was honored to be a finalist, the best part of the nomination has been hearing from former students, parents and colleagues.
“It’s just overwhelming. I’ve gotten messages from kids I taught 30 years ago,” she said. “It’s made me realize this is what being a teacher is all about.”
Penelope Quesada also was nominated by a student’s family. She taught the student – who had attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder – before her family moved away last year.
“Music completely changed her,” Quesada said. “She was really, really dedicated and she accomplished a lot in my class. That’s kind of the purpose of my teaching. Music changed my life. I wasn’t very good at school or academics and my music teacher was very dedicated to me.”
Quesada was in 4th-grade in her native Lima, Peru, when a teacher noticed her playing the recorder and told her she had a gift.
“It helped my self-esteem so much, because I was completely down,” she said. “I had felt really bad about not being good at anything.”
Quesada started to excel in both music and academics and music helped her through what she called a chaotic home life.
“He really made an impact on me and I’m forever grateful, because music was the thing that really saved my life,” she said. “He’s the reason I became a music teacher.”
Quesada attended the music conservatory in Lima where she earned a double degree in flute performance and music education. Then when her teacher retired, Quesada took over for him at her former school.
She taught there for about five years, then came to the U.S. in 2000 to study at the University of Louisville. Quesada, who didn’t speak English when she came to the U.S., chose Louisville because she felt an immediate connection to flute Professor Kathleen Karr.
“She was very compassionate. She was able to teach me flute without really speaking English,” she said. “It was pretty amazing.”
After teaching for several years in Louisville parochial schools, Quesada saw a posting for a bilingual Orff-certified music teacher at Lincoln Elementary as the school was becoming a performing arts magnet.
“I was like, ‘Well, that’s me,’” she said.
In the Orff approach to music education, students learn by playing, often with xylophones and other easy-to-use instruments, she said.
“When you are playing the Orff instruments, it’s so immediate,” she said. “You hit a bar and immediately produce a sound. It’s an easy instrument to play, it’s very child friendly.”
And like Quesada when she arrived in Louisville, many students at Lincoln don’t speak English.
“We have students from everywhere here,” she said. “But they immediately get involved in my class; it’s so interactive that they don’t really need to speak the language.”
MORE INFO …
Lois Wiggins Lois.Wiggins@fayette.kyschools.us
Penelope Quesada Penelope.Quesada@jefferson.kyschools.us