Member Spotlight: Joseph Rutkowski

Periodically, NAfME will share profiles of exemplary members in the “Member Spotlight.”

Joe Rutkowski has been a member of NAfME since 1983. Photo  Courtesy of Joe Rutkowski


Joseph Rutkowski has taught band and orchestra classes at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, New York, since 1991 and was the orchestra director at Stuyvesant High School in New York City for the eight years before that. He is a concert clarinetist in orchestras and chamber ensembles, and is a jazz pianist with his sons and former students.

A member of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) since 1983, Joe will also present a session at the 2015 NAfME In-Service Conference October 25-28 in Nashville, Tennessee. He has received and been nominated for a number of awards, including GRAMMY Music Educator.


Q: Why did you decide to become a music teacher?

I decided to become a music teacher because my future mother-in-law would not let me marry her daughter unless I had a job. I was a professional musician playing concerts and club dates on the clarinet, piano, and accordion, and I was in no position to support a family. I went back to school to become a certified teacher, and it turned out that, once I started teaching and learning how to structure my lesson plans, I fell in love with the idea of introducing music to young people.

Q: Please describe your music program. What role do you believe your program plays in the overall fabric of the school?

The instrumental music program that I have developed of my 39 years of teaching is focused on providing the fundamentals to my students: scales and exercises, listening to great music on recordings and on live radio, and understanding the history of the periods of music.

I look forward to each day when I start out with my first class, which is a chamber music class of 25 students. I then see these 25 students spread out during the rest of the school day in my four other classes: a ninth-grade band class, an upper-class symphonic band class, a ninth-grade string class, and an upper-class string orchestra. After school three days a week, we have full orchestra where I invite all of my 150 students to participate in the full orchestra repertoire.

We spend the first nine weeks of every school year reading through the Beethoven symphonies, one symphony per week.

The other two days after school I have band students work on jazz and popular tunes so that we have a jazz ensemble and the students are ready at any time to perform events outside school off-campus.

Rutkowski’s students peform in the lobby of at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School, Long Island, New York. Photo courtesy of Joe Rutkowski


The music program nicely fits into the fabric of the whole school every Friday, when I have 20-25 student volunteers play jazz and pop tunes in the lobby at 7:15 a.m. as the students, teachers, and staff enter the building on the last day of each week.

Everybody knows we call it the “lobby music.” One time when we had exams on Friday, I decided to hold lobby music on a Thursday. It confused everyone in the school. Everybody thought that it was Friday and were very disappointed that there was another school day in the week left, and there would be no lobby music on Friday because of the exams.

Q: What role do you believe your NAfME membership has played in your career development?

I have been a member of NAfME, formerly known as MENC, since 1983 when I started public school teaching. Prior to 1983 when I was teaching in private schools, I felt that I did not have the support that I needed to accomplish my goals as a music educator.

Once I joined MENC in 1983, I began to attend the conferences and read the publications (Music Educators Journal and Teaching Music) and found the support and inspiration that I needed. The staff at NAfME is an incredible collection of music educators who care about our young people and how much every child needs music in her/his school studies.

Q: You are a GRAMMY Educator nominee and have received other accolades.

I am very proud that this is the second time that I’ve been nominated as a Grammy Music Educator. I am also proud to say that I was a U.S. Presidential Scholar Teacher on two occasions and a Harvard Club of Long Island Distinguished Teacher on one occasion.

Chamber Music Workshop at TMEA in San Antonio, Texas, with students from Brandeis High School. Photo courtesy of Joe Rutkowski


Q: Why were you interested in presenting at the NAfME conference in Nashville?

I love to attend the NAfME conferences when they are Eastern Division Conferences and the National Conferences, as well as on the state (NYSSMA—New York State School Music Association) and local (NMEA—Nassau Music Educators Association and NYSCAME—New York State Council of Administrators of Music Education) levels.

And I’m very happy that I have been selected to present this chamber music workshop several times, including TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association), the Balanced Mind Conferences (NEMC), the NYSSMA Winter Conference and All-Eastern Conferences in New York City, Baltimore, Maryland, and Hartford, Connecticut. I was thrilled to have dedicated teachers from San Antonio, Rochester, Baltimore, and Hartford provide their students as demonstration groups for these conferences.

Q:  The Session is titled “Play for Your Life! Chamber Music (from Mozart to Led Zeppelin) Reading Session for All Instrumentalists.” It sounds like a fun session!

My session is focused on helping teachers discover ways to help their students find joy in playing chamber music. Before I became a music teacher, I spent my first eight years after college graduation performing chamber music around the United States and in Europe.

Often, I found myself rehearsing and concertizing with musicians who did not speak English and me not understanding German, Italian, or French that well. Yet, we were able to communicate and bring our ideas about music to fruition in rehearsal and performance. When I started teaching high school, I noticed that there were some dedicated students who wanted to expand their involvement with music by engaging in chamber music.

After a few years, I figured out that by using the large serenades (eight or more players) by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, and Gounod, I could get more students interested in playing chamber music. Once these ensembles learned these pieces, I was able to separate t
hem into small groups of quintets, quartets, trios, and even duos.

Q: You are also a Tri-M® Music Honor Society advisor. Please describe the difference this NAfME program has made in the lives of young people you work with.

The great thing about Tri-M is that it gives recognition to the motivated and dedicated music students for the work that they already do, such as performing at retirement homes and hospitals and doing programs like feeding the homeless and collecting and donating old instruments for schools in areas of the country that do not have music programs. My students also enjoy holding dinners for other Tri-M chapters on Long Island each fall.

Knowing that we always have a chance to apply for chapter of the year, which we were recognized as second runner-up in 2008 and first runner-up in 2010, gives my students the motivation to do more and more to help the community through their dedication using their musical skills.

I am grateful that Eric J. Scott, band director at Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet School in Nashville will have his students demonstrate the large serenades on Tuesday, October 26th at 11:30 a.m. during my chamber music session. I will also invite any teachers in the audience to come up and play with us. I then offer suggestions for chamber works as well as sources to find pieces for unusual instrument groupings.

What inspired me to devote a workshop to “Developing a Chamber Music Program or Club” is the fact that after high school and college, it isn’t always so easy to find a band or orchestra to play with. But there is always the chance to find one or two or more other musicians to play with. Chamber music fits the bill.


Joseph wrote about his upcoming session for NAfME’s Music in a Minuet blog recently. Also see his article, “A Teacher’s Perspective: The Power of Music.”

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Roz Fehr, NAfME Communications Content Developer, October 15, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (