16 Grammys between 3 schools in Aurora and Naperville
One of the most acclaimed high school districts in the world of music stretches across Naperville and Aurora -- just ask the Grammy Foundation.
Indian Prairie Unit District 204's three high schools have won a combined 16 Grammys, which recognize the most accomplished music programs in the country.
Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville has netted eight Grammys, Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora has secured seven, and this year, the district's newest high school -- 7-year-old Metea Valley in Aurora -- got into the mix as a Grammy Signature Gold school, one of the top three music programs in the nation.
Achieving the full spectrum of high-quality musical offerings at all schools within one district is beyond rare.
"It says an enormous amount about the work that the district is doing to focus on music," said Scott Goldman, vice president of the Grammy Foundation. "It's truly remarkable. It's fairly unprecedented."
Indeed, in the suburbs, District 204's 16 Grammys far outpace the next most awarded districts -- Niles North District 219 and Palatine Schaumburg High School District 211. Each has claimed three.
Nationwide, only two schools have won more Grammys than Neuqua, and only four top or equal Waubonsie in Grammy frequency.
A winning formula requires accomplished teachers, ample finances, facilities and equipment, and community support in prioritizing music -- something many suburban schools have in great measure.
But in District 204, students say the magic comes because music takes on greater meaning than notes on a page, greater value than an organized collection of sounds.
"It cleanses my mind from the stress of my life," says Elise Titiner, a senior bassoonist at Metea.
"Music is not just a hobby. It's a passion, an escape," says Kavya Anjur, a junior flutist.
In a district where music matters, striving for excellence in technique and expression, repertoire and recording has become the norm.
"Our three schools are known for having a rivalry," Titiner said. "But when it comes to music, we all come together. We all cherish music."
At these three bustling high schools with 2,600 to 3,800 students each, experienced educators give form and structure to the art of practicing music. They emphasize the process instead of the end result.
"We try very hard to make it a very sequential, educational approach," said Mark Duker, fine arts chairman at Waubonsie. "Going about it the right way gets us to equally incredible results."
At these sometimes high-pressure, high-achieving schools where students are stretched among advanced placement classes, college exam preparation, sports, volunteering and every extracurricular activity under the sun, music gives them an identity -- and they pour themselves into it.
"If it wasn't for cello, I would just be a student. But I have a personality," says Darcey Pittman, a senior cellist who is president of Metea's Tri-M Music Honor Society.
Students who identify as musicians work hard, within the framework their teachers create, to be their best.
"There is no end goal to it," says Shawn Park, a junior oboist. "You can constantly be the better musician."
Arts a priority
Educators say a strong focus on music feeds these enthusiastic and well-prepared students into high school classes and extracurricular ensembles at Neuqua, Waubonsie and Metea, where their efforts propel them to Grammy-winning success.
Musical instrument education in District 204 starts in sixth grade, with daily instruction.
That helps students gain skills faster, said Jonathan Lauff, Neuqua's fine arts chairman. Early on, teachers emphasize proper posture, breathing and rehearsal techniques so students make no wasted efforts.
"The younger levels do a really fantastic job of establishing those things, and the students see and hear the results early on," Lauff said. "They don't have to wait to high school to have this musical experience. They get tied in early because they can hear, 'Wow, this sounds pretty cool.'"
A yearly fine arts festival the district's nonprofit educational foundation hosts is pretty cool, too. The event includes roughly 80 musical performances and 12,000 artworks by students of all ages from 33 schools and it draws an estimated 28,000 people -- all in one day.
In this circle of musical and artistic community, students thank their teachers for encouraging Grammy-winning work.
"Our directors put us on a path to pure artistry," says Joe Barrios, a senior tenor in the Metea chamber choir. "I respect my teacher so much that I just want to do him proud."
Teachers, in turn, thank their students.
"It's really on the kids," says Don Devany, band director and fine arts chairman at Metea.
"We're seeing great success in what the students are able to accomplish."
And everyone thanks the district's leaders, administrators and parents for prioritizing the arts, forming music booster organizations and protecting music education from budget cuts.
All of this thanks will find a stage May 11, when Metea receives its first Grammy award.
It often takes a broad community focus on music for a school to be a Grammy winner at one of three top levels: the winner, called the National Grammy Signature school; the next tier, Grammy Signature Gold schools; and the third level, called Grammy Signature schools. To be recognized at these levels, a school must have not only an excellent orchestra or a powerhouse marching band or a top-notch choir, but all of these and more -- a well-rounded program.
"We want as many students involved in music as is possible," Goldman said. "We feel that the best way to get there is to have a broad range of offerings."
Look no further than District 204 for an example of broad offerings. There are steel drum bands and jazz ensembles, madrigal choirs and multicultural choirs, chamber and symphony orchestras, pep bands and plenty of opportunities for soloists.
In one structural way, District 204 could be at an advantage because it's a unit district, encompassing elementary, middle and high schools, allowing for the same musical philosophy to be established, from kindergartners to high school seniors.
But music educators in the district know they're not the only ones deserving of Grammy status.
"Some phenomenal music programs in Chicagoland have never applied," Waubonsie's Duker said.
Pressed for time, some schools with fewer music staff members than powerhouses like Metea, Neuqua and Waubonsie aren't able to put the "time and energy and effort" it takes to fill out the demographic paperwork and submit performance tapes in the later stages of the Grammy application, said Chris Barnum, band director at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, which was named a Grammy Signature Gold school in 2012. The suburbs, though, are "a great area for music education around here," Barnum said.
In the end, it truly does come back to the music, said Charles "Chip" Staley, former fine arts department chairman at Neuqua, who led the department when the school snagged its first Grammy only two years after opening its doors. Grammy judges listen with a trained ear, seeking to honor student musicians who not only hit the right notes, but play them with spirit.
"They're going to know when students are performing musically and not just technically," Staley said. "Great teachers will teach the kids how to play with expression."
11: Las Vegas Arts Academy, Las Vegas
10: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Jacksonville, Florida
8: Neuqua Valley High School, Naperville
7: Waubonsie Valley High School, Aurora; Pioneer High School, Ann Arbor, Michigan
6: Northwood High School, Irvine, California; Klein Forest High School, Houston
5: Flower Mound High School, Flower Mound, Texas; Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Long Beach, California; Syosset High School, Syosset, New York; Boston Arts Academy, Boston
4: South Salem High School, Salem, Oregon; City High School, Iowa City, Iowa; Valparaiso High School, Valparaiso, Indiana; Longmeadow High School, Longmeadow, Massachusetts; Johnson City High School, Johnson City, New York; Charles A. Sprague High School, Salem, Oregon; State College Area High School, State College, Pennsylvania; Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Dallas; High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Houston
Other local winners:
3: Niles North High School, Skokie
2: Fremd High School, Palatine; Barrington High School; Glenbrook South High School, Glenview; New Trier High School, Winnetka; Evanston Township High School
1: Metea Valley, Aurora; York Community, Elmhurst; Prospect, Mount Prospect; St. Charles North; Hersey, Arlington Heights; Naperville Central; Schaumburg; Addison Trail; Downers Grove South; Grayslake Community; Homewood Flossmoor.
* From these top three award categories: Grammy National Signature school, Grammy Signature Gold schools and Grammy Signature schools.