Kent Knappenberger, Inaugural Winner of the Grammys' Music Educator Award, Talks ABBA and New Violins (Q&A)

Kent Knappenberger, a music teacher at the Westfield Academy and Central School in Westfield, New York, was honored with the Grammys' first-ever Educator Award, presented by the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation. One of nine finalists, Knappenberger was chosen out of an initial pool of 30,000 nominees, generated by online submissions. Each of the nine finalists will receive cash honorariums ($10,000 for Knappenberger, and $1,000 to each finalist, as well as matching grants), with support and resources from the Grammy Foundation’s Education Champions Box Tops For Education, Converse, Ford Motor Company Fund, Journeys, Microsoft Surface and Universal Music Group. Holding a Bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Fredonia and a master’s degree in music education from Eastman School of Music, Knappenberger has been getting the A-list treatment this week, jetting to Los Angeles to attend the 56th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony Sunday night and to spotlight the need for music education support across the country.

First of all, congratulations! Did you ever expect it to be you? What has the reception been like in your community?
The kids have just -- if they were already wrapped around my heart, they’re really wrapped around me now! [Laughs] They did not know that I won. We flew out on Tuesday morning -- I said I had an appointment in Buffalo, but it was an appointment with an airplane!

Were you at school when you found out?
I actually found out earlier in December, [as] I was about to do a concert with my wife and our daughters. I was pretty nerved up about the concert and then, after I got off the phone with Neil Portnow, I was not nerved up anymore about the concert -- it gave us time as a family to adjust to the idea, but I don’t think there’s anything that could have prepared me for this week. It’s very exciting to be here and as I learn more about what the Grammy Foundation does, [it seems to me that] they really care about what’s going on.

How did you initially get submitted for this?
I got nominated by two former students, as well as the parent of a current student of mine. I completed the initial process and when I found out I was a quarter finalist, I thought I’d better do some thinking about it! I submitted the videos -- it was a really healthy thing to do that. You have to revisit what you’re doing with your life as a teacher to really fulfill the requirements. It’s a very humbling thing because through this I’ve gotten to know some very talented colleagues, especially other finalists. They’re an amazing group of teachers and it’s humbling to be counted among them. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility now. I know I represent myself, my community, my students, but I’d really like to represent them -- to show what music can do for kids.

You’ve been there for 25 years. Has it been challenging to keep students engaged in music and keep up the numbers of kids who pick up an instrument?
I’d say that I had a lot to learn. If you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, I really should be a genius by now. The whole time I’m learning how best to teach these kids to connect with this art form. They’re very willing to do it -- they just need a little bit of guidance to see how they can. The world’s a complicated place and they’re searching to find their place in it. We have this wonderful art form where kids can help define who they are, make sense of the world and their place in it. There’s a reason we as a culture view music the way we do. That in itself makes the doorway, and my job is to help the individual find their connection.

When did you first know you had a fascination for music? What was your first instrument?
I started taking piano in early elementary school. I just liked to play! Nobody had to tell me to play, I just liked the way it sounded. I liked the fact that I could hear a song on the radio and figure out how to play it and how the chords sounded.

When you were in school, what musicians inspired you?
As a kid, I loved ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, Earth Wind and Fire, and James Taylor. They had nothing to do with each other style-wise, but that’s always been the deal with me.

How has new technology changed your methods?
Well it’s essentially been easier in many ways. So many times kids can struggle with the technical necessities of playing an instrument. I teach in a school for the general population and sometimes students have special needs in that if they can access the very creative part of music - composing, or using sound creatively, they can do that with technology in a way that opens up a whole new door for them. Maybe they won’t be playing guitar because of a physical issue, but they can get things to happen on a computer, and that is very engaging.

What do you think the grant and award money will help with initially?
Right now I have a student that wants to play violin, and our school doesn’t own a violin, so we got one on loan (from me). I’d like to use some of the money for sheet music purchase, and help facilitate some experiences for the kids. We’re taking them to New York to see Newsies, and I know this honorarium will help with that. Seeing Newsies on Broadway will be life changing for them -- I can guarantee it!

Applications for the second annual Music Educator Award are currently online; to nominate a teacher, visit The deadline to nominate is March 31, 2014. The application process will be adjusted each year to allow the broad array of effective teaching styles and methods used in the discipline to be recognized and awarded.