TMS teacher named statewide Orchestra Teacher of the Year
When Tecumseh Middle School orchestra teacher Amy Marr headed to the Michigan Music Conference in Grand Rapids the weekend of January 18, she knew she was a finalist for the 2013 Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association (MSBOA) Orchestra Teacher of the Year Award, but she was still surprised when her name was announced.
Marr said MSBOA is made up of 16 districts, with Tecumseh being in District 8. The process is that teachers are nominated by their peers at the district level, then the names of the district winners are sent to the state executive board, which narrows the pool to three finalists. The membership then votes on the three candidates. Marr said one of the teachers had retired and winners have to be active members so she knew it was down to two.
“The other person was a fantastic teacher from Grand Rapids, and he’s great,” she said. “I really had no idea which way it would go.” Marr said she was very excited to be singled out for this award. “It’s such an incredible honor, especially so early in my teaching career,” she added. “A lot of times teachers are given such awards more toward the end of their careers. I’ve been teaching here at the middle school nine years, and just to be recognized by my teaching colleagues throughout the state really humbles me.”
Marr also had reason to take pride in her work at the conference when high school students from the Tecumseh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Bough, performed in the same concert hall the Grand Rapids symphony uses. She can reflect on the strings program’s early years that led up to such an accomplishment, years she has launched many fifth graders into their playing careers.
“One of the things that puts this in perspective is that prior to 10 years ago, we didn’t have string players in our district,” she said. “To achieve what we have with this program reminds me that this award is not just mine. I wouldn’t be here without the support of this community, the students and the families who are involved with this program, and we’ve advanced to such a high level in such a short time.”
When asked what she believes has helped her be a good teacher, Marr will paraphrase something a retired Ann Arbor music teacher colleague named Dan Long used, quoting Shinichi Suzuki: “I teach my students to be better people and in the time left over, I teach them music.”
“That’s one of the things that helps guide me,” Marr said. “We teach a lot of music, but students need to know you care about them and that you have genuine interest in who they are and what makes them ‘them.’” She added that her students know her door is always open and that she treats them with respect. She also credits her own varied background and musical training with providing creative ways to help keep things interesting for the students.
“Rather than teaching a boring etude, I might teach them a fiddle tune that will convey the same concepts, but in a way that gets them hooked and interested,” she said. “I teach the classical techniques, but I also try to keep things interesting. If things are the same everyday, students will check out. I try to keep them guessing what I’m going to do next so they will get excited and want to do better.”
Marr also is a popular performer herself and was headed for a performance at the Croswell Opera House on Thursday, Jan. 24. She’s also an experienced presenter at music conferences and has been doing so since 2007. At the Michigan Music Conference, she taught a session called, “Fiddling for Fifth Graders and Beyond” and shared tips and techniques from her eclectic background. Another session was, “10 Tips and Tricks to Motivate Middle School Music Students,” and as a testament to her reputation, at least 200 participants filled the room when teachers are told to bring at least 50 packets of information. Marr brought 100 and ran out.
“We have to keep students open to alternative styles and genres, because there just aren’t that many jobs open in classical orchestras. If they want to be musicians, they might find studio work, or have an opportunity to play on a country album, or do a gig with a rock band,” she said. “They need a good base for different styles in order to be more marketable and find work.”
Now that the Tecumseh Strings program has graduated the first of its initial music students, Marr feels pretty good about how the program has evolved. Entry level students are still coming, with 84 fifth graders having recently started in the orchestra. She said there’s definitely a strong interest here in band, orchestra and choir, with a high majority of middle school students in at least one music class for the whole school year.
“Music is such an important piece,” she said. “For some kids, this is their release where they get to be ‘them.’ Because of different learning styles and abilities, this is where they excel. And it’s good we have a community and administration that supports the Encore programs. I think Tecumseh is such a strong arts community with the Tecumseh Center for the Arts and different events that we have here. It’s just really great we can give these children these experiences to really help them discover themselves.”