1987 Fredonia graduate wins inaugural Music Educator of the Year award
On a frigid January morning, America learned what Chautauqua County has known for years: Kent Knappenberger, a music teacher and choral director in Westfield, N.Y., is as good as there is.
Of course, it’s no secret in Western New York that the State University of New York at Fredonia — where Knappenberger earned his undergraduate degree in 1987 — turns out outstanding music educators. But now, a Fredonian was being honored by The Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Foundation, and introduced on the “CBS This Morning” show, as the first-ever Music Educator of the Year.
In an instant, Knappenberger became one of the nation’s most inspiring, feel-good stories of the year. As the nationwide announcement was being made, he and his family were already on a plane heading to Los Angeles for the Grammy ceremony and week-long build-up that included interviews and public appearances. The award was given at the Grammy’s Special Merit Awards Ceremony on Jan. 25, and Kent and the new honor were recognized the next night in prime time, during the nationally televised 56th Grammy Awards ceremony.
|“I believe that this award has already been, and will continue to be, a tremendous encouragement to all music educators...” |
Mr. K. — how he’s known in his rural district — was among 32,000 nominees. Incredibly long odds, indeed. Yet, those who know this music educator of 25 years were not taken aback, because they have witnessed his teaching expertise, commitment to students and passion for music.
“Surprised? No…Stunned? Absolutely!” was the reaction of Westfield Academy and Central School Principal Ivana Hite, ’93. “It was extremely exciting, and at the same time, the anticipation of Mr. Knappenberger winning the award was emotionally overwhelming,” she added.
“Being one of over 30,000 nominees for a national award is stiff competition, but you knew Kent had a shot at it because he loves what he does and that allows him to do great work,” added Westfield Superintendent David Davison.
Humbled and honored to be chosen, Kent said, “I believe that this award has already been and will continue to be a tremendous encouragement to all music educators. Beside the attention it has brought to many fine teachers, it brings attention to the importance of music education in general.”
The award was established to recognize educators, kindergarten through college, who have made a significant and lasting contribution to music education and demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in schools.
The word ambitious falls short to describe Knappenberger’s schedule. He teaches general music in grades 9 to 12 and directs the following: a mixed 6 to 12 chorus, a 9 to 12 co-curricular boys’ ensemble, a 9 to 12 co-curricular girls’ ensemble, a 10 to 12 chamber choir, four steel pan ensembles, four handbell ensembles, a Celtic/American string band, a sixth grade choir and a 7 to 8 boys ensemble.
Neil Portnow, president/CEO of the GRAMMY Foundation and The Recording Academy, needed just two words — “so impressive” — to describe Knappenberger’s workload to the national audience.
Over 400 people honored Knappenberger at a reception following his return. Fredonia President Virginia Horvath and School of Music Director Karl Boelter were among many congratulating the long-time educator.
Dr. Horvath unveiled a scholarship in Knappenberger’s honor for a Westfield graduating senior. “For 25 years you have changed the lives of so many students, and that’s what we hope for among our graduates at Fredonia,” Horvath said.
Dr. Boelter marveled at Knappenberger’s ability to attract over half of the high school population to elective music classes. “He’s especially adept at getting boys interested in singing — a remarkable achievement in high school,” Boelter noted.
“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,” Knappenberger said.
A son of a United Methodist minister and Mayville Central School graduate, Knappenberger began at Fredonia with majors in Music Composition and Animal Science through a cooperative agricultural program. After later changing to and completing a Music Education and performance-harp double major, he added a master’s degree in Harp Performance and Music Education and Literature from the Eastman School of Music.
Mario Falcao, professor emeritus of harp at Fredonia, former chair of the board of directors of the American Harp Society, and a founding member of the World Harp Congress, immediately recognized Kent as a student of uncommon talent. “He has the qualities of a great teacher: intelligence, education, thorough knowledge of the teaching material, innate ability to communicate and a great sense of humor,” Falcao said.
School of Music faculty had a profound effect on the future Grammy winner. In Dr. Thomas Regelski, whom Kent attests was a “very demanding professor,” he found not only a learning experience that he loved, but a philosophy of music education that made total sense.
“It was about teaching music in a way that modeled in-life use and incorporated not only performing, but also listening and composing. I was interested in how music could affect the lives of all kids in the general music class, and I found out how to do that from him. What I learned there, I am still doing in practice,” said Knappenberger, who acknowledged Regelski, distinguished professor of music emeritus, in his acceptance speech.
|Kent Knappenberger directs one of his many student ensembles at a special assembly held in January to celebrate the veteran Westfield music teacher’s nomination as a Grammy finalist. |
Professor Emeritus Keith Peterson is remembered as a wonderful theory teacher who made a terrified freshman welcome, and whose teaching style resonated with Knappenberger’s own needs.
Studio teachers Dr. Laurence Wyman and Falcao “were always patient with me, put up with my quirky sense of humor and taught me so much about music.”
Dr. Donald Lang taught him that being a performer and being a musician were not always the same thing. “I knew that I really wanted to learn to be a musician, and that meant something a little bigger, but very wonderful and exciting, and limitless,” he said.
“I had so many great teachers. I was encouraged, pushed, corrected, and given experiences that were life shaping,” said Knappenberger, who returned to Fredonia in May to deliver the School of Music Convocation address.
Knappenberger, his wife, Nanette (’91), and three of their nine children were treated to a lifetime of memories. What a thrill it was at the ceremony to be seated in the seventh row, next to Ozzy Osbourne, behind Metallica and Blake Shelton, and in front of Paul Shaffer and Cyndi Lauper. The Knappenbergers also met Ringo Starr, Los Lonely Boys and composer Paul Williams.
There was also a call from Dustin Hoffman, the Oscar-winning actor who saw Kent on CBS and was so impressed by the teacher’s philosophy that he was moved to call him. A“very down-to-earth” Hoffman, who was nearly finished filming the upcoming movie, “Boychoir,” in which he plays the conductor, talked about making a difference in the world, helping kids and having a job that one loves.
“Talking to Dustin Hoffman on the phone was a definite ‘pinch me’ moment!” recalled Kent, who later received a copy of the movie’s screenplay from Hoffman.
The Knappenberger-Fredonia connection also includes a brother, Lon, who also teaches at Westfield and was named a New York Master Teacher in science, and sister, Amber Knappenberger Brown, a speech therapist at Panama Central School.
A second generation will be added this fall when daughter Lucy follows in the footsteps of her now-famous father — and her mother, who holds an undergraduate degree in Music Education and a master’s in Elementary Education from Fredonia.
“Fredonia is a family tradition, and I am proud to be a Fredonian,” said this Class of 2018 member who will pursue a B.F.A. in Acting.
She is, of course, very proud of her father.
“I have admired his humility throughout winning the award. It has never been only about him,” she attests. “He always, always, puts his students at the forefront. He was interviewed by several media outlets, and (he) always had something loving to say about his students, and how music has touched or changed their lives.”
Despite all of the excitement of this past year, Lucy is also excited to begin her own career as well, and isn’t worried too much about having to follow in her father’s footsteps.
“Who knows?” she says with a smile. “Maybe I’ll leave my own legacy at ‘Fred’ when I win an Oscar for a stunning movie performance!”