Chris Rivers, longtime head of the renowned music department at Harwood Union Middle/High School, is stepping down this year. The Valley Reporter spoke to Rivers about his career at Harwood. This is the second of a two-part series of that interview.
VR: A student who's interested in music at Harwood, what are their options?
CR: It's band and chorus and jazz band, those are all typical sort of hallmarks of any program in public school. Then we begin to augment that and provide other opportunities to perform solos and play in recitals, to take auditions for regional and statewide music festivals. That's where some of the most important learning takes place for those motivated students who love to play and practice and work on it to be in a room with other students that are just like them. That can be very transformative. So, the lesson program kind of is the beginning point where that can really open up when students are learning at a higher level.
I see my role over the years is really trying to hold a standard of what music programs can be. I really have always felt and I'm still driven to this day of trying to impress upon the kids how important it is to hold yourself in high regard, to set a standard for how well you want to perform, and then get to that point through hard work and sticking to it and working through problems and practicing and lessons and all of the steps that we try to put out there for them. It's a truly team effort.
Yes, I've steered the ship for a long time and have maybe had the vision of how all this works. But it's not a one-man band. It's a whole team of people. And that includes administrators and my fellow teachers who let the kids out of classes for lessons. And by and large, teachers support that, because I think they see the light in the kid's eyes about learning music.
VR: What are some of the other skills that students gain through either Harwood’s music programs specifically, or just learning music in general?
CR: The ability to problem solve, to learn about discipline and what it takes to sit down and really work at something that's challenging. It’s like being part of a community. That’s something that kids certainly gain from this experience. And of course, performing live in front of people and working and sharing what you've learned in class with the public, to have people clap for them, which feels really great.
VR: What have been some of the highlights of your career? What are some of the things that stand out to you most that have been meaningful?
CR: A number of years ago, we received a signature school award from the Grammy Foundation. So that was really big news. Folks would often say at the time that Harwood won a Grammy Award, we didn't really win a Grammy Award but we were recognized by the Grammy Foundation. We were awarded a monetary prize to offer the kids scholarships and summer camps. But most importantly, it was just a recognition for our community that we have this to be proud of, that this is our program, this is our community, these are our kids that are doing really well with their music programs. I think the other would be, for years we recorded CDs every year. We did a professional recording that featured the kids in the band and the chorus and the jazz band. I have a whole collection of CDs that the band and the chorus have all recorded. I'm really proud of that. So, I would say those two things -- that recognition from the Grammy Foundation and these recordings that were a big part of what we did.
VR: One thing that's well known at Harwood is the assembly band. Can you tell me a little bit about that program?
CR: The assembly band came out of this assembly program, which was initiated 15 years or so ago. They’re student-run assemblies where student voice is really important. Kids put these shows together. We thought it'd be great to have a house band similar to late night shows, to accompany these assemblies, where students are recognized from anything from sports to scholastics, and everywhere in between. The assembly band kind of came out of the jazz band and, of course, out of the music program. It's continuing to evolve.
VR: What about music is special to you?
CR: I think, to me, it's how it taps into my emotional being. I just love the feeling, whether it's as a performer or as a teacher equally, those moments when things just sound beautiful, when the music is just the way it's supposed to be and the way you hear it in your imagination. There's nothing like it. It's the best feeling in the world. I guess the thing about music is that the fact that it happens then and there. It's an art form that's unique because you're creating it in that moment. It's not something that you go back and do again. So, when a performance happens, there it is. It's just that moment, you don't look back, you just enjoy where you are and what you heard in that moment. It's really special.
VR: Do you still play trumpet?
CR: I do. That's one of the things that I'm looking forward to. I know for sure I want to do more music on my own terms, and work on my piano playing and play some more trumpet and do some more gigs. I think that would feel really good.
VR: Is there anything else you want the community to know about your experience at Harwood?
CR: I'm just really grateful for the support that the community has provided, our true partnership between parents and families and the school and having administrators that have always been supportive of the arts. I think Harwood has really been a perfect fit. Coming in as a sort of young, inexperienced teacher that had all these ideas and energy to make them happen, and a community that was really thirsty and ready to have a music program that everybody could be really excited about.
Just so much gratitude for all the support and genuine care that the community has given the music program as it's evolved and changed. It's been very gratifying and humbling. Thanks to everybody in the community.