Squaring the Circle

Robert Vega '06 and student musicians at Chicago's Rauner College prep school.
Robert Vega '06 and student musicians at Chicago's Rauner College prep school.
Image Credit: 
Rauner Photo Archive

Many musicians are shaped by the music educators who guided them during formative years. A number of Berklee alumni are giving back to the next generation through a variety of educational pursuits.

Anyone who sings, plays an instrument, or creates music understands the profound power of the art form. The value of a performer’s art is appreciated universally. Many great musicians worked with an influential teacher who guided and inspired them by sharing knowledge and illuminating deeper musical realms.

Many musicians want to replicate their own experience for a new generation. The majority of professional musicians will find an opportunity to teach somewhere along their path. And a special subset of that group will discover that, for them, teaching is the performance. Introducing others to the mysteries of their art form and nurturing someone else’s talent becomes richly rewarding.

What follows are stories of music educators who have found that teaching is a calling, not a job. They are not merely showing young people how to navigate notes, these educators add richness and dimension to their student’s lives. In some cases, they offer a course correction toward a better existence.

Success Will Follow

Looking back on the 2012–2013 period, Robert Vega ’06 says he can’t believe the kind of year he had. It started out as previous years had, with Vega serving as the only music instructor for 350 inner-city kids at Rauner College Prep, a charter school in a hardscrabble Chicago neighborhood. About 95 percent of Rauner’s students come from impoverished families, and very few had ever had a music lesson. But in the fall of 2012, fortune smiled on Vega and his students.

That fall, Vega reached a few career milestones. First, he was named one of America’s five teachers of the year by People magazine. Then, while en route to New York to receive the People magazine award, Vega got a message from Patricia Steel, the program director for the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. Steel (who is a 1999 Berklee graduate) called to say that Vega’s application for educational support was approved. “She told me that the foundation would provide us with $13,000 worth of new and refurbished instruments to keep our program going,” Vega says. “I don’t think I’ll ever top this. As an educator, you can’t hope for anything better than what happened for us that year.”

Good things seem to come in threes. Vega and his Rauner jazz band took fourth place in their division at Berklee’s 2013 high-school jazz festival—a competition that draws top bands from across the nation. And this third milestone was a bit of squaring the circle for Vega.

The school is in the same neighborhood where he spent his early years. At that time, there wasn’t much music education offered in the district’s schools. After his family moved to the suburbs, Vega began playing brass instruments. Following high school, he joined the United States Navy and landed an assignment at the USS Constitution in Boston. In addition to blowing “Taps” and “Reveille” at that post, Vega taught naval history to children and studied privately with Berklee Professor Greg Fritze. These experiences pointed him toward Berklee as a music education major and ultimately, a teaching career.