When the CMA Foundation announced its list of Music Teachers of Excellence this week, it probably came as no surprise to his former students that Bryant Adler was among the honorees.
The CMA Foundation, an arm of the prestigious Country Music Association, has worked over the past decade to “invest in quality music education throughout the country,” according to its website. Three years ago, the organization’s attention turned to “celebrating, honoring and investing in quality teaching,” and as a result, 30 teachers are chosen each year to receive awards that include personal financial compensation, classroom money and an awards luncheon, which this year will be hosted by country star Dierks Bentley.
I first wrote about Bryant for the Weekend section eight years ago, when he stepped out of the classroom for a show at Vienna Coffee House. A Kingsport native, he majored in music education and participated in the college’s prestigious Pride of the Southland Band at the University of Tennessee, where he met the guys with whom he performed in the local band Genuine Nothing back in 2006.
During its heyday, Genuine Nothing was a regular presence at venues in both Knoxville (at Downtown Grill and Brewery) and Maryville (at the Waterfront Bar and Grill). Those who came out to the band’s Cinco de Mayo shows at El Sazon Mexican Restaurant on Alcoa Highway probably remember some legendary good times, but after stepping away from the group, Adler retreated from the stage for a while, leading the marching band at Alcoa High School and teaching music there for several years.
We hooked up during that time for the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lecture Series” at AHS, an unofficial nickname to my guest appearances in his History of Rock classes. The first year, I prattled on like the music nerd I am, played a few tunes and generally kept the kids from drifting off to sleep for about an hour, but in Year 2, we retooled it, and I started inviting guests from the local music scene to talk and eventually play.
Over a three-year period, we notched some good times and turned the classroom into an impromptu concert hall. Bark, the two-piece blues-rock outfit made up of Tim and Susan Bauer Lee, rattled the sound baffles, and singer-songwriter Scott Miller played several of his songs at another lecture. Then there were Zach Householder from death metal outfit Whitechapel, East Tennessee punk legend Rus Harper, spoken word/hip-hop artist Joseph “Black Atticus” Woods, Sam Quinn of The Black Lillies, Scott Hinds of The Royal Hounds … it was, we both agree, a great success.
A couple of years ago, Adler moved to teaching music at Alcoa Elementary and Alcoa Intermediate, and in the second year of the CMA Foundation’s initiative, he threw his hat in the ring.
“I didn’t get it that year, but I learned a lot of valuable stuff through the process,” he told me this week. “It’s a pretty intense application, and the biggest part is that you have to send in an eight-minute video of you actually teaching. There’s also five essay questions, but the video is the crux of the whole thing, and after I went through that process and didn’t get selected, I was like, ‘I’m gonna apply for this next year.’ I think I had a better plan and format with what I presented to them, so I put it in, and I got it.”
The foundation selects three groups of 10 teachers: 10 from the Nashville metropolitan area, 10 from the rest of the state and 10 from a nationwide pool. With the assistance of Alcoa Intermediate tech teacher Michael Erhart and a blueprint from a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, he made the cut (as did Josephine Cappelletti, the orchestra teacher at Coulter Grove Intermediate School in Maryville). With the win, he gets $2,500, plus an additional $2,500 for his classroom, and a date to the April 30 awards dinner in Nashville.
For Adler, it’s validation of the work he’s done in the past and continues to do. Working with younger students has been a “seismic shift,” he said, and while he misses the more adult relationships he had with older students, the whimsy and wonder of discovery in those younger grades is proof positive of the power of music.
“With younger kids, the thing that’s exciting is that they’re always motivated,” he said. “They come in fired up, asking, ‘What are we going to learn today?’ And whatever I’m bringing in, they’re very engaged and excited to learn about. You have to present lessons they’re going to enjoy, and you have to remember that you’re not trying to teach them how to be musicians — you’re showing them, ‘Hey, this is music! This is really cool! Do you know this is out there?’
“It’s just about exposing them to music that is fun, and as they get older, hopefully you’ve planted that seed and they’ll grow that. I’ve enjoyed teaching music at all levels, because I love it. And that I get to enjoy music every day, and get paid to do it, is a lot of fun. That’s not a bad thing at all.”