A Teacher’s Perspective: The Power of Music

A Teacher’s Perspective: The Power of Music

By NAfME Member Joseph Rutkowski

The older I get, the more I am convinced that music is the most important subject kids should learn in school as performers and consumers. Why is it that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, the Beatles are as relevant (actually more so) today as (than) they were in their day? Any child who is not exposed to performing and listening to the music created by these and all the other geniuses will be so sadly shortchanged!


016-CH 14 Rutkowski and Students


What makes the subject of music so powerful and so vital is the dual significance it holds: 

  1. The musician spends vast amount of time alone preparing her/his skills
  2. The musician depends on other persons (musicians and/or listeners) to complete the musical experience, which is a communal event


I feel fortunate to  have been born into a musical family, attend public schools that valued music education, receive a conservatory education and spend 8 years after college in a performance career before settling down into a full time teaching position.  During the 12 years before I began teaching, I was able to learn from great musicians, many who are no longer living: Eric Simon, William Kroll, Carl Bamberger, Leonard Bernstein, Mstislav Rostropovich, Maurice Andre, Marcel Moyse, David Glazer, Winifred Cecil, Harold Wright, Carol Glenn, David Weber, Claus Adam, Samuel Baron.

When I was a student at the Mannes College, the German violinist William Kroll told us how when he was our age (a teenager), he played with musicians who had played with Johannes Brahms himself when they were teenagers. I think about this when I work on music by Brahms with my current students.

And I am very fortunate to have spent the past 32 years teaching in two different high schools where the administration highly values music education: Stuyvesant High School in NYC and the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School.

But what I feel most blessed by is the fact that I still perform with other professional musicians, with my students, with my own children (now adults pursuing careers outside of music), and–most incredibly–with former students, who now are thriving as concert or jazz musicians!  When my current students attend these performances, they see their teacher practicing what he preaches. They also see a good many of my former students in the audience. Those are the students who are probably not continuing to practice and play their instruments, but do attend live concerts to see their former classmates whom they recall sitting next to in their teenage years.


04 Rutkowski conducting the Combined Band copy


I begin my day practicing my clarinet for the half hour before the students arrive. They find it amusing to see this old guy still practicing.

When they ask me why I still practice, I quote the great cellist Pablo Casals at the age of 96: “I believe that I am beginning to make progress…”

In the five classes I teach, we start with a warm up routine that includes long tones, scales, articulation/bowing exercises, ear-training, singing, sight reading, conducting, self- and peer-evaluation and dropping the needle (tuning into the classical radio station to guess the period of history of the piece that is being broadcast). Then we delve into rehearsing whatever great piece we are preparing for concert performance or simply our own study (we spend the first 9 weeks of school studying, rehearsing and reading through each of Beethoven’s symphonies). 

After school, I invite all of my 155 students to play through the music we rehearse that day. 30-50 students voluntarily attend on the average day.

On Fridays, we usually have close to 100. Some students attend after school sessions several times each week. These are the most dedicated students who are the role models. These are the ones who attend concerts in NYC, including my own. These are the students who I know will keep the music alive.

I hope that all my students continue to practice and play their instruments with others, but if most of them wind up going to live concerts, they will be helping to keep Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, the Beatles are as relevant as they are today.


About the author:

Joseph Rutkowski, Clarinetist

Joseph Rutkowski has taught band and orchestra classes at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School on Long Island since 1991 and was the orchestra director at Stuyvesant High School in NYC for the eight years prior. He continues to perform as a concert clarinetist in orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as a jazz pianist with his sons and former students. Joseph is a two-time Presidential Scholar Teacher, a Distinguished Teacher of the Harvard Club of Long Island, and a two-time GRAMMY Music Educator AwardTM Quarterfinalist.

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