Breaking News Bar
updated: 6/3/2013 2:08 PM

West Oak Middle School band director up for Grammy Foundation award

Success - Article sent! close
  • John Harshey conducts the West Oak Middle School's Symphonic Band.

    John Harshey conducts the West Oak Middle School's Symphonic Band.
    Paul Valade/Daily Herald file photo, 2011


The "Dear John" letter sent earlier this month to John Harshey at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein was not only familiar but welcome.

Once again, the Illinois Grade School Music Association had targeted the school's Symphonic Band for recognition, which meant another plaque for the program and an honor for Harshey, the co-band director.

"We have quite a band here. It's one of the best in the area. We've been recognized statewide in different ways," Harshey says.

But an unexpected accolade could have Harshey mingling with the stars on a much bigger stage. He is one of 217 music teachers, including 14 in Illinois and several in the Chicago area, out of 30,000 nominees across the country who recently were announced as quarterfinalists for the inaugural Music Educator Award to be presented by the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Foundation. Visit for the full list.

"Talking about yourself so much, it's not something I usually do," he said of the attention the news has generated. "I let my work do the talking."

Harshey lives about a mile from West Oak, one of three schools in Diamond Lake Elementary District 76, where he has served as band director for 27 years. His tenure is such that his son and daughter, aged 31 and 23 respectively, were his students at West Oak.

Current students nominated Harshey for the Music Educator Award, which was announced this past February during the 55th annual awards show in Los Angeles. It was established to recognize educators, kindergarten through college in public and private schools, who have made a "significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education" and a commitment to maintaining music education, according to the GRAMMY Foundation.

"It's awesome. It's well deserved recognition," said West Oak Principal Christopher Willeford. "He's a hard working teacher who is really dedicated to providing kids with outstanding quality music instruction."

Harshey said he was surprised and excited when he was contacted.

"They sent me a form to fill out, a survey, and I had to write an essay," he said. By June 11, he has to submit three videos, each about five minutes, showing him in action and discussing his philosophy. Semifinalists are expected to be named in August.

"I have a unique way of motivating kids. We have very high standards here at West Oak. I just do it until the work gets done -- whatever it takes."

The fifth and sixth grades at West Oak each have a band, with the seventh and eighth grades combined into one unit led by Harshey and co-director Debra Saam. All instruments are taught from music written by the pair. This past April, they began using SmartMusic software to allow students to participate online.

The tuba is Harshey's main instrument. He is a member of the Northshore Concert Band, which performs throughout the area including at schools and other venues.

The field will be narrowed to 10 finalists, with the winner flown to Los Angeles to receive $10,000 and attend the 2014 Grammy award ceremony. Nine finalists will receive $1,000 and all 10 schools will receive matching grants.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.