We are proud to announce that eight Brothers have been recognized in the inaugural class of Yamaha’s “40 under 40” music educators. Yamaha launched this new music education advocacy program in the fall of 2020 by soliciting nominations for music educators under the age of 40 who are making a difference by growing and strengthening their music programs.
After receiving hundreds of nominations, Yamaha selected 40 bright young minds that are leading the way in advancing music education in the United States. The Brothers of Phi Mu Alpha offer a hearty congratulations to all the young men and women who have been selected as part of this inaugural class. We are also excited to see how our Sinfonian Brothers have gone above and beyond for their students – like Brother Willie Snipes who gets his students involved in helping the local community, or Brother Cory Zilisch who created a successful electric orchestra program that students can’t wait to join, or Brother Alcántara-Rojas who advocated for and developed the Granite Recording & Entertainment Arts Training (GREAT) Academy that one-third of the high school students participate in.
See what Yamaha has to say about our Brothers they selected for the list below.
Willie Snipes – Theta Sigma Chapter (Florida Southern College) 2011
Director of College Bands – Miles Collge
Imagine successfully petitioning your college’s president to start a music program, then being the first student to graduate from that program, then returning to the school six years later to be the assistant band director. That’s what Willie Snipes Jr. did! In April 2016 – on his birthday, no less – he was named the director of college bands at Miles College, becoming the youngest director in the HBCU band world. “To see music and music education majors graduate from the program that I helped start brings great joy to my heart,” Snipes said.
Miles’ award-winning bands has more than 200 members with an 85% retention rate. “I believe that my high recruitment and retention rate is due to the fact that I build a relationship of trust with my students,” Snipes said. “Many of my students are from low-income families, which I am from as well, or from broken homes — so that connection and trust are essential.”
Building and maintaining a strong music program requires support from the community, so Snipes shows local schools and neighborhoods that “Miles Cares.” Members of the band sorority and fraternity assist local middle school and high school music directors, giving the college students teaching and leadership opportunities. Snipes and the staff promote the “horns up, guns down” campaign in local neighborhoods, help with food drives, donate instruments to local school bands, and recruit students and award them band scholarships.
In one of his “40 Under 40” nomination letters, a colleague wrote, “Mr. Snipes and his students are not just champions in the band world, they are champions for education. He make sure no student is left behind by pushing education first and stepping in when a student’s grades are falling. Mr. Snipes is a teacher, leader, father, mentor, friend and a great asset to our community.”
Kevin Cooley – Upsilon Chapter (University of Nebraska – Lincoln) 2011
High School Band, AP Music Theory and Digital Audio Production Instructor – Platteville High School
It seems fitting that the word “cool” is in Kevin Cooley’s name. He is constantly coming up with ideas to grow and improve the music program at Platteville High School. One creative concept that he introduced to students is to “fail harder.” Cooley explained that one of his former teachers used that mantra during a concert cycle and it stuck with him. “Failure is such an important step in learning, but we tend to shy away from it, which ironically leads to more failure,” he said.
Another concept he adapted from his undergraduate studies is “ensembleship,” which is understanding what a musician’s job is in the ensemble. Cooley explained, “I teach my kids to focus on four questions: 1) What is my job? 2) What is my section’s job? 3) What is the ensemble’s job? 4) How do these jobs relate?”
Jazz is a key part of Cooley’s music program. Under his tenure, Platteville’s jazz program has grown and now consists of two full jazz bands and an annual jazz night fundraiser. The jazz bands regularly traveled to jazz festivals prior to the pandemic, and Cooley invites jazz clinicians to his classes. “Jazz offers a more authentic opportunity to explore the creative process for a modern musician,” Cooley said. “Improvising, reading lead sheets, attempting to recreate a specific sound and learning how to communicate with your group verbally and non-verbally are critical skills for students who want to continue their musical pursuits in a less academic setting after high school.”
In one of his “40 Under 40” nomination letters, a colleague wrote,” Kevin’s energy and ideas are contagious! From directing the musical pit, to starting a department-wide jazz fundraiser, to securing several grants to build a digital music lab and recording studio, Kevin has been the engine behind the ideas.”
Javier Alcántara-Rojas – Gamma Pi Chapter (California State University – Fresno) 2009
Director of GREAT Academy, Director of Instrumental Music – Granite Hills High School
Javier Alcántara-Rojas not only grew the music program at both Granite Hills High School and its feeder middle school, Phoenix Academy, he was a key player in advocating for and creating a new curriculum that would become the Granite Recording & Entertainment Arts Training (GREAT) Academy. For three years, Alcántara-Rojas and a small group of educators developed this career technical education (CTE) program specifically for the performing arts. The GREAT Academy, which opened in 2018, offers core arts training along with applied technical training.
In one of Alcántara-Rojas’ “40 Under 40” nomination letters, a colleague wrote, “The amount of creativity it took to create this system — which allows students to move through an academy-style system of classes while still allowing them to take desired classes within the other subjects — frankly boggles my mind,”
The academy’s mission is to prepare high school students for college and career readiness and to “equip them with the technical proficiency and aesthetic sensitivity” for a career in the entertainment industry.
One-third of Granite Hills High’s students participate in the academy. According to Alcántara-Rojas, the academy coursework focuses on student interests and offers a comprehensive music program, as well as classes in dance, theater, animation and tech theater. The GREAT Academy also has a newly renovated performing arts center, and performing there encourages “students to give their creative best,” he said.
The California Department of Education saw the immediate impact of the GREAT Academy and recognized it as a Regional Technical Assistance Site to help other schools build and grow the arts in their communities.
Chris Kaflik – Delta Lambda Chapter (Ball State University) 2009
Director of Bands – Brownsburg High School
Chris Kaflik knows the power of being a student-centered educator because he admits that at the beginning of his career, he wasn’t one. “If you are not student-centered, you might be in education for the wrong reason,” he said. “The earliest years of my teaching — in drum corps, high school marching bands, etc. — was not as focused on the students. It was more about me. I learned from that pretty quickly.”
Kaflik also stresses the importance of remembering how you felt as a high school student and what you thought about certain topics. “I was not always the most talented student in my high school, college ensembles or drum corps. I struggled in some areas,” Kaflik recalled. “Remembering how it felt to overcome certain struggles and now recognizing that in my current students has helped my teaching and my relationships with my students.”
How he connects with students at Brownsburg High School is definitely one of his strengths. In one of his “40 Under 40” nomination letters, a colleague wrote, “Instead of directionless teaching, Chris has added intention behind his teaching and helped students understand why they do what they do. He has been able to guide students to improve themselves as people first before improving as a musician.” In another nomination letter, a student described Kaflik as “awesome — a first-round draft pick for sure!”
When Kaflik started at Brownsburg, one area he focused on was recruitment and retention. “We want to give students music that will challenge them and stretch their abilities, but we also make sure they are going to feel like rock stars when it comes to performance,” he said. “In marching band, I think the design is a big factor in recruitment and retention. We always want to do something unique and ‘cool’ that will intrigue middle school students, non-band high school students and any audience member to say, ‘I want to be a part of that.’”
Winning competitions isn’t everything, but in four years, Kaflik has taken Brownsburg to the Indiana State Finals and the Bands of America Grand Nationals. “To say it was a turnaround would be an understatement,” a colleague wrote in another nomination letter. “Chris would be quick in giving the credit to a lot of other people, but without his leadership, it would not have happened.”
Doug Schaffer – Rho Lambda Chapter (University of Missouri – St. Louis) 2009
Director of Bands – Mark Twain Junior/Senior High School
In August 2019, Doug Schaffer “marched in and brought a program to life,” according to a band parent in one of his “40 Under 40” nomination letters. Schaffer recommended a three-week fine arts exploratory class where 6th graders can experience art and band so they can choose which fine arts class they want to continue. “Since implementing the class, our beginning band number shot up with 60% of them joining band,” he said.
Schaffer also started a junior high marching band to increase the retention rate from 8th grade to high school. “The band performs at two local and one away parade every year to give them a taste of high school. After the first year of the junior high band, we saw 100% retention,” Schaffer said.
Despite the pandemic, the district hosted the first Mark Twain Invitational Band Festival with 12 bands participating in a parade and a field show competition. “My kids showed incredible resiliency by still being able to put together a show and compete,” Schaffer said. “There were several schedule changes, as well as cancelled rehearsals, but the kids still brought their best to the festival, and honestly the whole season.”
On top of the remarkable growth of the music programs at both Mark Twain Junior High School and Mark Twain High School, Schaffer also designed the marching band and fall color guard uniforms. “I do the program coordinating for all of our shows, as well as all the drill and music arrangements. I really love putting together a product each year that is custom made for our group,” he said.
In one of his “40 Under 40” nomination letters, a former coworker wrote, “Mr. Schaffer’s enthusiasm is contagious. He is proud to be a Tiger, and we are proud to have him.”
Cory Zilisch – Zeta Kappa Chapter (University of Louisville) 2008
Director of Orchestras – Westport Middle School
The orchestra at Westport Middle School has been described as electrifying — that’s because it’s an electric orchestra! “The Westport Rock N’ Warhawks is the only one of its kind in a middle school … It is the most technologically advanced orchestra program in the United States today, and it is known throughout the country for its highly skilled and diversity of talent,” said Cory Zilisch, Westport’s director of orchestras.
Students in the orchestra are introduced to a variety of rock, pop and classical music; learn choreography and floor movements for their performances; and can experiment with all the sounds that electric instruments produce. Students also learn to improvise and create their own music. The Rock N’ Warhawks perform at various school and community events, activities and conferences in Kentucky.
The popularity of the electric orchestra has helped Zilisch grow his orchestra by 400% in five years. “Simply taking that group and performing around the city has caused so many kids to want to join the program,” Zilisch said. “Another big recruitment tool is our social media presence. Word has gotten around town about our program and we have kids clamoring to be a part of it!”
In addition to the Rock N’ Warhawks, Zilisch also oversees a chamber orchestra and a 6th grade orchestra. According to one of his “40 Under 40” nomination letters, “I would wager a large sum that Cory Zilisch is the most impressive, young orchestra teacher in the United States. … He holds a high bar for behavior, encouragement and achievement in his ensembles that has a radiating effect on the school population as a whole.”
David Bechard – Nu Pi Chapter (Central Michigan University) 2006
Director of Instrumental Music – Wahlert Catholic High School
When David Bechard started at Wahlert Catholic High School, the band had 13 members. After relentless recruiting for 18 months, the band grew to 52 members — a growth of 400%! “My plan was to make band fun and create a sense of ownership for the students,” Bechard said. “I focused on building their sense of community and pride.”
A part of the fun factor was the virtual Halloween concert. “We missed our annual Halloween Parade due to COVID-19, so I wanted to give my students a fun Halloween experience,” Bechard said. “We recorded ‘Thriller’ in our main gym and my ‘zombie cymbals’ slowly chased my bass clarinetist, adding to the zombie horde throughout the song!”
Even though Wahlert’s band is small compared to other schools, Bechard did not just make do with what he had. He repeatedly asked for resources for his program. A costly ask was acoustic paneling in the band room, which would help students hear the other instruments better. “The most important step I took was reminding the office at every opportunity that the paneling was a need — physically, musically and educationally,” he said.
According to one of his “40 Under 40” nomination letters, “It wasn’t long ago that Wahlert Catholic High School’s band looked like toast. Then David Bechard stepped in. A dwindling band that didn’t march and struggled to play concert band music due to lack of instrumentation is now playing Friday night football games and playing quality concert band literature.”
Don Stinson – Nu Omicron Chapter (Illinois State University) 2004
Director of Bands – Joliet Central High School
Don Stinson proves that you can go home again. Stinson is the director of bands at the high school he attended — Joliet Central High School. “I’ve thought about teaching at Joliet Central since I was 14,” he said. “Being only the fifth director in the program’s 110-year history is very daunting, but the students continue to rise to the challenge of honoring our band’s history and innovating for the next generation.”
The school’s demographics have changed since Stinson was a student there 20 years ago. It now serves a 75% low-income area with high mobility. “There may not be as much money in our population as there used to be, but we turn negatives into positives,” said Stinson, who is proud or the diversity and accomplishments of his ensembles.
Stinson has created more music-making opportunities at Joliet Central, including a second jazz ensemble, a guest artist series, a jazz lab experience and an introduction to band class. He also founded and directed the Joliet Young Musicians Mentor Band, a two-week summer program. “I ‘borrowed’ the idea of the mentor band from another school and tweaked it. By the end of the program, junior high students receive some musical instruction and our high schoolers experience some authentic leadership opportunities,” Stinson said.
On top of all of his teaching responsibilities, Stinson has a book, “Teaching Music to Students from Underserved Backgrounds,” coming out. The three key points in Stinson’s book are: 1) Money doesn’t solve all of our problems in education, effective and committed teachers are the key; 2) working to identify and combat implicit bias can help teachers help students and communities; 3) some students from low-income areas may not have the time or place to practice or focus on music outside of school; therefore, we must take the job of structuring our class time with rigor and flow seriously.