Stephanie Suarez remembers the very moment she received the news.
“It was a Saturday night at 9:28 p.m.,” the Liverpool High School choral teacher recalled. “My email thing on my phone went ‘bleep’ and it was the email from the Grammy Foundation saying we were a semifinalist. I was very happy about that.”
The email was to notify Suarez that LHS was a semifinalist in the foundation’s Signature Schools competition, which recognizes public high schools across the U.S. making “an outstanding commitment to music education during an academic school year.” Created in 1998, the Signature Schools program draws from more than 20,000 schools nationwide. Those are culled down to 123 semifinalists, of which LHS is one. According to a release from the foundation, those semifinalists are then narrowed down to a smaller number of finalists, who will receive a custom award and a monetary grant ranging from $1,000 to $15,0000 to benefit its music program. The top programs are designated Gold recipients. The best of the Gold recipients is designated the National Grammy Signature School. The remaining schools are designated Grammy Signature Schools.
Suarez found out about the program through LHS grad Josh Redden, who now works for the Grammy Foundation.
“This fall, I got a message from him saying he was going to be in town and he’d like to do a presentation on the Grammy program for the students,” Suarez said. “He talked to them about Grammy Camp and stuff, and the kids really loved his presentation. Either that night or the next night, we were just chatting on Facebook and he said, ‘You know, there’s this thing the foundation does, the Signature awards, so why don’t you apply for it through the school?’ And he explained to me what it was about, and it sounded like a pretty good thing. So I completed the initial paperwork and sent the application in.”
Suarez soon received a request for more information from the foundation, asking questions about the district in general and the music program more specifically. She sent that information along and, a couple of weeks later, received word that LHS was a semifinalist. Last week, the music program, which is made up of three choral groups, three bands and three orchestral groups, made recordings and sent them in for judging.
“It all gets put together and sent in electronically,” Suarez said. “We keep our fingers crossed and some time in March, we should hear.’
Regardless of the outcome, students and staff alike are thrilled with the nomination.
“You look at the Grammys and you see the level of the people and they’re all people you idolize as a high school student, and to be involved in something associated with the Grammys is awesome,” said senior Noelle Killius, president of FAME, LHS’s elite choral group. “It’s a high honor. It’s amazing to think we’re at that level.”
This is far from the first honor Liverpool’s music program has received. The NAMM Foundation has named the district one of the “Best Communities for Music Education” several times, and Chestnut Hill Middle School Music teacher Sky Harris is a quarter-finalist for the first-ever Music Educator Grammy. All these honors are indicative of why so many students participate in the district’s music program, according to LCSD Fine Arts Director David Perry.
“I think it’s a wonderful compliment to what we’ve had here in Liverpool for so many years, which is this gem of a music program,” Perry said. “It’s really heartening that in this day and age of so many things on the menu for kids, we still have more than 500 kids that want to be part of a daily music program. You read all the time about what music does for students and the value of that experience and how that prepares them for life outside of school.”
Seniors Jordan Young and Renee Petrella, drum majors in the school’s marching band, agreed.
“I think it definitely teaches us discipline,” Petrella said. “You have to practice just to be a part of Symphonic Band. It teaches us a way to express ourselves and learn about our emotions, and we can use that in the future in our jobs and stuff like that. If we’re creative with music or if we’re more technical. It teaches us to take the right path so we’ll be successful.”
“I think the biggest thing that people learn from the music program is how to work with each other,” Young said. “If one person doesn’t put in their best effort, the group suffers for it. Being a tight-knit family, you have to work for each other. Being able to work for each other and work for a common goal, you have to take responsibility for your actions. No matter what line of work you go into, that kind of devotion to your craft is invaluable.”
And Liverpool offers a multitude of opportunities for involvement in the arts — something its staff believes sets it apart from other programs.
“This is my 30th year here, and I’ve seen it grow and evolve and change,” Suarez said. “I think we provide students here an opportunity that many districts don’t in terms of the level of what they can achieve, whether it’s orchestral, with a band instrument or choral, in terms of performing arts or musical theater, we offer it all. Not many schools do that to the level that we do. I would say the dedication of the music staff sets us apart from some other schools.”
That’s why, while other area schools have made major and sometimes devastating cuts to their music programs in the face of declining aid from the state and struggles with their budgets, Liverpool’s music program has continued to thrive.
“There are schools across the country that feel that [music] is not a necessity, but you can come here and see how many people are the way they are because of the teachers and the dedication you can’t get from a sports team. It’s a very emotional experience,” Killius said. “As a teenager, that’s when you find out who you are. It’s really important to have music be a part of that whether it’s just a hobby or it’s something you decide to pursue seriously. So to have this recognition people will be a little bit more open and willing to see the aspects of it and how it interacts with the high school atmosphere.”
Staffers credited the support provided by the board of education, staff and parents, noting that accolades like this nomination can only further that agenda.
“A lot of this is just getting support,” said band director Jim Dumas. “It’s arts advocacy, trying to make sure your programs are safe. We know at the end of the day money’s money and budgets are budgets. Getting some recognition, an opportunity like this, is only going to benefit the program in trying times.”
Regardless of the end result in March, Liverpool staffers said they’re honored to be considered.
“Just being nominated as one of the semifinalists is a huge compliment. It’s always the outside validation that makes people realize what we have here. The reality is, day in and day out, people don’t always realize what we have. Then when we get this recognition by the Grammys, when people outside say what you have good here, people stand up and take notice,” Perry said. “We’re up against the finest music programs in the country. We don’t know what other schools sound like. If we did receive it, we’d be very, very proud. We’ve been very, very proud of what we have for quite some time. We would not be less proud if we don’t get it, but if we did, it would be a nice pat on the back for all of our students and teachers and parents.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club’s Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.