Alumni Profile: Robert Vega '06
After studying music education at Berklee, Robert Vega '06 returned to Chicago to teach in a school—Rauner College Prep—with a 90 percent poverty rate. Days before the school year began, the other music teacher left and Vega found himself as the lone music teacher for 350 students, including many who were picking up instruments for the first time. Just two years later, those same students took fifth place at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival.
Ironically, growing up in inner-city Chicago, Vega didn’t have access to music education through his school. As a result, he is not just an inspiring and effective teacher who appreciates the gift of music, but a staunch advocate for the importance of arts education in public schools. After People magazine honored Vega and four other extraordinary teachers last month, the notoriety brought him to the attention of mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appointed Vega to an advisory panel for the arts and arts education in the city.
Vega spoke with us about how he found his way to Berklee from the U.S. Navy, the professors here who influenced him, and why he hasn't read the People article about him yet.
Tell us about your musical background.
I didn’t grow up with much musical influence besides jamming in the car with my mother, singing popular tunes and stuff like that. As a matter of fact, I grew up in inner-city Chicago and I really didn’t have musical exposure because it really wasn’t offered in the schools.
You joined the Navy out of high school.
In boot camp, I was interviewed for the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston. I had an opportunity to be stationed there, but it was a really competitive interview process. There were over 200 candidates that were applying for two positions. When it was my turn, there was just one question asked: What can you provide for us? I said, “I’m a musician. I play all brass instruments. I can play trumpet, tuba, trombone, you name it.” And I was one of the two who was selected to be stationed in Boston.
How did you end up at Berklee?
9/11 happened, and they wanted to ship me out. I wanted to make a bigger impact than that. Instead of going overseas to war—even though I think it’s a noble thing and think it’s important that there are enough soldiers protecting America—I wanted to have a different impact. It all starts with young people. They need to be told not to act that way. To have a little bit more tolerance. So I decided to not sign another contract to be in the Navy. I had taught naval history to children, and really enjoyed it. So I took that love of teaching and my love for music, and put them together and decided to go to Berklee.
Were there any individuals at Berklee who shaped your experience?
I had also taken lessons with [Berklee composition professor] Greg Fritze prior to getting out of the Navy. I honestly believe if it wasn’t for him taking me under his wing, getting me back into the groove of playing formal music instead of sitting there playing “Taps” and “Reveille,” I would have never had the opportunity to experience what I have been experiencing. I thank him for a lot of this. When John Hagen was there, he was awesome. Cecil Adderley was just an unbelievable individual. I had a great experience at Berklee. Every single person I met along the way, every single educator that taught me at Berklee is definitely attributed to the reasons why I won this award.
What was your first experience as a music educator like?
I wanted to start off by teaching in suburbia. I guess every prospective music educator has this fascination of getting the perfect gig. They’re going to be given all the stuff that they need, the kids are going to come in with private lessons. I remember the first day I stood in front of my first class—it was an internship at Josiah Quincy in Chinatown—and I stood up and said, “All right, let’s play a concert B-flat scale with half notes,” and the band director looked at me and he just started shaking his head. He didn’t say anything and I’m like, “No? What do they know?” And he pulled out a method book, and got them started on page one. And that was when I starting realizing that it’s incredibly hard work.
What are your days like now, teaching in Chicago?
I teach 350 students every single day. I get in at 7:30 a.m. and I have at least a dozen students waiting at the door for me. I open the door and immediately it fills up to two or three dozen students playing their instruments. I try to foster an environment where students can feel comfortable coming in. It’s beyond the music—it’s just giving them an opportunity to experience the love and joy of working on an art.
We did have two music teachers at our school. The other music teacher had left unexpectedly a week before school started. My principal at the time asked if I wanted him to hire another music teacher. I said, “Let’s try it with just me.” One of the things that Berklee taught me is to welcome the opportunity to be challenged.
Tell me about winning the award.
The principal at the time was promoted to assistant superintendent. He was the one who told me, “Rob, I want you to know something.” I always expect the worst when people come up to me like that. I was like, “Oh shoot, he’s going to fire me.” He said, “You’ve been working unbelievably hard, and we nominated you for People magazine’s teacher of the year.” When I got the phone call, I was at my parents' house. I was getting ready to leave and my sister woke up to a phone call. She ran out of the house in her underwear and was screaming at me “Robert! Robert!” She mouthed to me, “People!”
Did you enjoy the article in People?
I have to be honest, I haven’t read the article yet. And the reason why is that I had the opportunity to meet the other four teachers—I’m getting all emotional. I thought, “I can’t believe I’m here. Why am I here?” One of the other teachers and his students were building prosthetic limbs to send to a third world country and I’m sitting here doing what? I’m just teaching music.
But I think the greatest part about it is that People magazine chose a music teacher to represent the arts. Public school music teachers are—and I hate saying this because it’s heartbreaking—a dying breed. There needs to be more understanding that music in the schools actually increases academic achievement and performance in every single subject. We need to have a different look at the way we treat our electives and arts programs in public schools.