What Music Has Meant to My Students

Live from Room 218

By NAfME Member Joseph Rutkowski

This school year in Room 218 at John L. Miller – Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, New York, has looked very different than years past. Nevertheless, the students have played on under the direction of NAfME member Joseph Rutkowski, who persevered in offering music-making opportunities for all his students during school closures and virtual/hybrid situations. Rutkowski has led his chamber music ensemble, band, and orchestra in rehearsals and exercises distanced in person and virtually, keeping them connected with one another and with their school community. For some 25 minutes after school from home via Zoom, about 25-30 students join Rutkowski to play through wind ensemble pieces and Beethoven’s nine symphonies without stopping.

And Fridays are still “Lobby Music” days—virtually offering the school community mornings filled with music.

“With a paucity of live music events going on in this strange world, the musicians from the John L. Miller – Great Neck North High School (Tri-M Chapter 2605) broadcast a live 15-minute show every Friday morning via Zoom to the whole school,” Rutkowski shared. “You see seven of the hybrid B students, while 24 more are participating at home on Zoom.”

“By the way, I tell my students that they are the first musicians on the east coast with a weekend gig EVERY FRIDAY,” says Rutkowski. “I feel really lucky.” 

Listen in to some of their performances, and read what students are saying about the difference music is making for them this school year particularly:


“Don’t Stop”

YouTube video


“For me, playing music has been a consistency before and during quarantine. Playing and sharing music with the people around me feels more connected and is a sense of normalcy in school for me. Even while we are in uncertainty, music has been the constant thing keeping us together. By being part of the class and playing, I feel the satisfaction of contributing to this.”—Tricia Wu

“During these unprecedented times, we constantly live in a whirlwind of change. But the students at GNNHS have and will continue to perform. I mean, the show must go on! Music has this unique ability to drown out the chaos and confusion for me. So when playing music for others, my hope is that it alleviates any amount of stress they have suffered during the pandemic.”—Linda Li

“Playing music for others always makes me and the audience happy, but especially during this pandemic, it has much greater meaning. Music is something that we can all share together—whether we are playing or not. Just hearing people play music adds joy to those who hear it. Not many other schools have the same musical spirit that North High has. The fact that North High continues to keep its music program strong and spreads its culture to others is what makes our school unique. Although we must social-distance and follow safety guidelines, I believe that playing music during a pandemic has more significance than it would have had otherwise.”—Jonathan Moalemi


“It Don’t Mean a Thing”

YouTube video


“Throughout the course of this year, a lot of things have changed, but music has not. Playing music has been something that I have done for almost a decade, and it means something to me. Nowadays, during the pandemic, the way groups of people play music is a far cry from what it used to be, especially the joy felt when making music with other dedicated musicians. Unfortunately, now it’s only possible to mimic that to a degree in school, but we make the best of it. Playing individually at home has not changed, something I’m grateful for. I’m sure we will all enjoy music for our entire lives, pandemic or not.”—Victoria Guan

“Playing music for others during a pandemic means a lot to me because it symbolizes the optimism that is necessary to get us through such difficult times. Right now, people are hurting and struggling, and in order to carry on, we must embrace the beauty of creativity and humanity that is embraced in the world of music. When I play my instrument, in an orchestra, and I hear music, I feel pride because I have been a part of producing that sound. Music is more than a noise; it is an energy, that fills a room, lifts us up, and helps us to keep going, even in the most trying times. As long as I have my euphonium, I feel like I, along with anyone whom I play it for, is going to be okay.”—Jack Brenner


Jeopardy Quiz

Today’s quiz paid a special tribute to Alex Trebek.

  1. He composed “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “In a Mellow Tone.”

Who is Duke Ellington?

  1. He composed “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Porgy and Bess.”

Who is George Gershwin?

  1. He composed the “Surprise Symphony,” and his nickname was “Papa.”

Who is Franz Joseph Haydn?

  1. He was famous for singing “Strangers in the Night,” “That’s Life,” “New York, NY,” and “Young at Heart.”

Who is Frank Sinatra?

YouTube video


“From the vibrato of my tuba to the perk of someone’s ear, I play for others to connect with them on a deeper level through music. Whether you speak a different language or play on the other side of a zoom screen, we can understand and love music together. Plus, for me, music is one of the only things keeping me sane during the pandemic. I love conducting jazz club not just because of the amazing jazz artists whose music we play, but because of my fellow club members with whom I get to see and share a memorable experience. During this pandemic, I played for my parents, and I played for my friends who want to hear me. Playing for others means so much to me, especially because it is something that hasn’t changed fully because of the pandemic.”—Preston Chan

“During this pandemic I have learned not to take things for granted, and one of the things I never thought I could lose was my orchestra. Sometimes when we’re in class, Mr.Rutkowski will play us past recordings of concerts. Sitting there and watching these videos knowing that, as a senior, I most likely will not have the chance to experience that under his conducting again makes me tear up each time. However, losing that has made me appreciate the little things. Playing piano for my family or friends on FaceTime or recording my part for a virtual orchestra are things I cherish nowadays. So yes, I may not get the experiences I’ve had in the past, but the power of music is still a huge part of my life, and I know that I will never lose it.”—Arabella Notar Francesco



YouTube video


“Playing music for others is a way to spread joy and happiness to others. As a musician, it is very satisfying when I can play music and see how my hard work has made others happy. Playing music for others is a way to put smiles on the faces of everyone listening and a way to connect everyone. During this pandemic, we are more disconnected than ever, and playing music for others is a way for me to enjoy myself and help others enjoy our music.”—Stanley Chan

“Playing music for others during the pandemic instills a sense of normalization for both the listeners and the performers. Before the pandemic, the players at GNNHS would play live music for an audience at least once a week, and playing for people during a pandemic only brings the feeling back of playing our instruments pre-pandemic.”—Alex Geula

“Playing music for others always spreads joy for both the performers and the audience, but in these stressful times, sharing music takes on even more meaning. The need for social distancing and safety for the musicians and people raises difficulties in organization and finding an appropriate venue, but the need is also heightened, so music must continue to be shared.”—David Zeng


“Young at Heart”

YouTube video


“During this unsettling time, people are worried, anxious, and stressed. Music, however, can reduce that. ‘How?’ you ask? It is not hard. People can simply turn on their favorite music station, whether it is jazz, pop, or my personal favorite, classical (WQXR). Spending five to ten minutes to listen to music can impact your mood for the day. . . . In addition, music brings people together. Music reminds the community to appreciate the things we have. It gives a sense of hope and something to look forward to when the pandemic ceases. Music puts smiles on people’s faces, and maybe one day we will all see each other’s smiles while jamming to our favorite music.”—Daniel Choi

“During the pandemic, musicianship has become an outlet of physical expression in a world that separates us physically more than ever before. We wear masks, rarely leave our homes, and have few gatherings for the sake of our physical well-being. But when I sing, these constraints disappear. I can return to the sense of freedom that I long for every day with music.”—Sahar Tartak

“Playing music for others, in my opinion, is one of the best things that we can do to assure the student body that, despite the difficulties facing our time, we will keep our spirits high and strive for success.  I doubt very many other music programs in the country are continuing as ours is, and I think the fact that we have been able to do so much speaks volumes for our dedication to the program. In years past, many students walking into the building, myself included, were delighted to start our day with Lobby Music. I think it was a part of the culture of North High. With the pandemic, I am glad to see that we can keep that spirit alive.”—Kevin Khadavi


About the author:

Joseph RutkowskiNAfME member 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, the 2015 Long Island Music Hall of Fame Educator of Note, and a three-time GRAMMY Music Educator AwardTM quarterfinalist. Check out the John L. Miller – Great Neck North High School music program website.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

December 22, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

December 22, 2020


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December 22, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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