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Grammy-winning teacher Annie Ray on the importance of music education for all


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: The end of the school year often means year on concerts for student orchestras and choirs for high school music educator Annie Ray, it's a time to look back on a year that included a Grammy Award and ahead at her vision of what education should be. Ali Rogin's back with the latest installment of our series Weekend Spotlight.

Ali Rogin: The orchestra program at Annandale High School in Virginia is expansive.

Annie Ray: Put your bow on the purple string.

Ali Rogin: And inclusive. It's been around for more than 50 years, and has grown to more than 130 participants, many of whom speak a different language at home.

Annie Ray: I'll give you three and then we're in.

Ali Rogin: It's all conducted under the encouraging baton of director Annie Ray.

Annie Ray: Have literally been brought into their communities are like fed by these families tradition, traditional Korean meals when I'm pregnant, whether like you need to be eating, or like taking care of me. And it's been the most humbling thing to be educated by these communities of diversity not just in countries but backgrounds. And perspectives.

Ali Rogin: I have found that language and music tend to go hand in hand. And so I just wonder if that's something that you've experienced because I know many of your students don't speak English at home.

Annie Ray: Yes, it's so interesting because there are a bunch of students who I will see try to play by ear. And a lot of maybe music in their country is like played by ear or like that's just something that they have more of an ear to when picking up languages. It's interesting I've actually seen a correlation with with some of my ESL learners or English language learners who are try to learn like through that oral tradition the by ear a lot of ways.

Yeah, cello.

Ali Rogin: We sat in on the symphony orchestras final practice before their end of your concert designed to embrace the multicultural backgrounds of its participants.

Annie Ray: They have a student named Sosan, who had so much joy with teaching our class like about music from like her country and Arabic music. And I heard Sosan over and over again, encouraging other students. I was like, well, I need more student speakers tonight. They're like, No, no. And she was like, why aren't you proud of your culture? Like, aren't you proud and you want to show everybody and then they're like, We can I'm proud of it. She was then tell everyone about it.

And so much of like her and a bunch of other students who are like that, have set the tone for what our program is of like, be proud of who you are and what you bring to the table. Don't be afraid of it.

One, two, DZ. Yeah, Isaac rock it out.

Ali Rogin: That theme of pride is evident in the crescendo orchestra as well. Formed somewhat fortuitously during the pandemic. It's for students with significant and severe disabilities.

Annie Ray: I was lucky enough to be able to start it in this kind of like weird this time during the pandemic, during COVID. Nobody was here and except for our students in our category B Special Education Department. So, I invited them down to make some music with me because I was just wanting to make music with anybody who was around me instead of just online, we started playing together and the students inspired me, then walked down to my principal and say, hey, I want to make this an actual class like these students have the right to a quality music education.

And the only reason it's to the point that it is now is because of my special education team, my instructional assistants that occupational therapists who really taught me everything that they know and we just applied it to music. It really takes a village you can see that when you all are working together like we did this morning. We as music educators can't do things alone.

Ali Rogin: One student in particular, Kevin Hadamio (ph) was the spark that lit the crescendo orchestra's fire.

Annie Ray: Kevin was one of those kids who came down that first day I brought them all down. And he was so unhappy to be there. He was mad at us pull it out of his routine that we sat down and I started playing the cello for him. And he repeatedly started saying, meet me and he doesn't verbalize much. And so I was like, okay, well, here you here we go check, Kevin, you can try playing and he pulled the ball out of my hand and started going back and forth. And tears started welling up in his eyes.

And it was this moment where I was like, wow, he is -- we're connecting so much here right now. I've gotten so many kind emails from these parents or spoken with them where they're like, my child seems so unhappy all the time. And let's put here he's not, or there's might be a student who struggles in different aspects of the day. But here, she's so incredibly successful, and flourishing. But that looks different for every kid and every kid's learning and their process looks different.

And so we need to meet everyone where they're at. But then, besides that, pull them along further than they ever thought possible, have high expectations for them know that they can get to these high places of learning.

Ali Rogin: Ray holds all of her students to those high standards. It's part of why her colleagues nominated her for the Music Educator of the Year Grammy Award. She won and got to attend the award show in February, snapping selfies with stars who were excited to meet her. But the main thing her win delivered is a new audience and platform for raise message that Music and Performing Arts should be a core subject in schools, not just an option.

Annie Ray: When we're talking about social emotional learning right now, this is this huge buzzword social emotional learning is happening so authentically through the performing arts, through the arts, through creativity and tapping into these kids.

I watch kids who might come from very challenging backgrounds or very challenging situations, who stepped through the door and they might be a little bit opposed to it. But then they come in a little bit more and a little bit more next. I know they're running the whole program, the orchestra leadership and making it what it is not just a music education issue. It's an education issue of not funding enough for all teachers.

And so, I do call for like music education to become more of a fundamental right to a student's education a fundamental part of who they are.

Ali Rogin: For the Annandale class of 2024 orchestra members, it was time for one final performance. One final bow and one final exam.

Annie Ray: I'm saying goodbye to close to 40 seniors who are the reason that ended up orchestra is the way that it is they set the tone for what orchestra is or for what we do here, the purpose of us here. And so, I sent out their final exam which one of the questions was like can you describe orchestra and one word and so many of them said community and home. And the fact that they did say scales or anything like that I was like yes they got it. But to read their messages has been again one of the most humbling things of my life.

Ali Rogin: And as those seniors embark on new journeys, they know they can always come home to their orchestra family and to Annie Ray. For PBS News Weekend in Annandale, Virginia, I'm Ali Rogin.

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