ACE Teacher Award winner has instilled love of music in a new generation

ACE Teacher Award winner has instilled love of music in a new generation

CHAMPAIGN — Brandon T. Washington is an accomplished musician who has performed solo and as part of groups for many years.

But his biggest impact of all may be at Dr. Howard Elementary, where the 45-year-old has instilled a love of music in a new generation.

The winner of 40 North's Teacher ACE Award, Washington has been a full-time teacher since 2006 — and a sub for 12 years before that — joyfully strumming his guitar as he provides lessons for boys and girls in kindergarten through fifth grade.

His outreach extends to the University of Illinois, where he serves as coordinator for the Rock Band Songwriting portion of the Illinois Summer Music Camp.

To Washington, there's nothing more gratifying than seeing a student of his suddenly "get it" after struggling to sing on-key or follow a rhythm.

Just as he did once upon a time.

"If seeing the light bulb go on just clapping four quarter notes to the measure does not turn you on as a teacher, nothing will," Washington said. "That is why you endure the hours and hours of study and hours of rehearsal time."

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Growing up in Kankakee, Washington set out to be a doctor at first. Then he discovered music, which runs in the family — his father, George Washington Jr., was often called upon to sing the national anthem at games and frequently gave concerts at churches.

The first time Brandon ever performed in public was in second grade.

The song: "Michelle" — "Michelle, ma belle ..." — which Paul McCartney made famous for the Beatles.

"I was so nervous," he remembers.

Soon after, his bedroom wall became a shrine to his favorite artists, with posters featuring Rush, The Who and Midnight Oil.

"Later, when I started working at record stores, they would give out flats, which were a picture of the album cover on card stocks, and I would collect those," he said.

Washington played saxophone in the Bishop McNamara High School band, sang both tenor and bass in the chorus and performed in four musicals.

"I was the Scarecrow my senior year in 'The Wizard of Oz.' I relished that," he said. "I was in 'South Pacific.' I was the Minstrel in 'Once Upon a Mattress.' I was a teenager in 'Bye, Bye Birdie.'"

One particular teacher inspired Washington to follow her path and become an educator himself.

"I had a very driven and capable music teacher in high school named Monica Brigham who inspired me," he said. "She was a choral director at a high school that did not put a whole lot of money behind the arts at the time I was there.

"She took our jazz choir out, and we would perform at community functions. She worked very hard to instill in us the discipline it would take to become a group that performed regularly."

* * *

How did Washington end up at the UI, where he studied music education?

"I was broke, black and smart," he said. "My test scores and high school records were good enough for me to earn a full scholarship."

Washington's story is a unique one — particularly his path to becoming a minority music teacher. There aren't enough of them, he says.

"Traditionally, African-American teacher musicians have been relegated to choir and jazz band," he said. "I just think there is a growing need for representation of other minorities — Latins as well — because the student population is changing and is becoming more black, more Latin, more southeast Asian, more east Asian."

Another challenge he has encountered as an elementary school teacher: finding enough young males to go out for chorus.

"Boys and men are a bit skittish about looking foolish in music," Washington said. "I hope to help that situation by exposing more boys to music and getting more boys involved in music.

"If they get the rush of performing, hopefully they can tie those feelings to pursuing music."

Like Washington did, when he started his own band — Soulstice — while a UI student.

"After that," he said, "a lot of people in town still remember me being in The Funky Butt Drum Club. We performed here in town, with our home base at the old Embassy in Urbana, and had shows in Chicago and Indianapolis.

"Ian Shepherd, who was one of the percussionists in that band, and I got together with Andy Lund, and we formed a group called Temple of Low Men. I was the lead singer, and it was more of a hard-rock band."

Honor roll

40 North will honor seven people or businesses at its annual ACE (Arts, Culture, Education) awards celebration next week in Champaign. The honorees, whose stories we'll tell between now and then:

Advocate Award: Kelly Hieronymus
Artist Award: Peggy Shaw
Volunteer Award: Jim O'Brien
Business Award: Exile on Main Street
Teacher Award: Brandon T. Washington
Student Award: Natalie Wakefield
Lifetime Award: Dorothy Martirano

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