SCOTTSDALE, AZ – Deciding to leave Horizon High School was one of the hardest decisions Katherine Kouns had to make.
It meant leaving behind 13 years of organizing set lists, countless hours perfecting harmonies in rehearsals, choreographing steps ahead of holiday concerts and, of course, saying goodbye to her students.
“It was very difficult to leave that place,” she said. “It was home in so many ways.”
Her husband landed a new job more than 1,000 miles away. It was too good to turn down. So she packed up with her two children, ages 4 and 5, and left the scorching summers and colorful sunsets of Arizona for the green backyards (and cold winters) of Indiana.
Six months later, she’s taking a year off from teaching and helping everyone get settled into their new lives. But she’s still involved in music: judging contests and recording educational samples for music programs.
She’s also helping out her former choral program, but not in a way you’d expect.
Over a telephone conversation earlier in December, Kouns recalls finding out the unthinkable: she was sitting in the audience at a high school in Indiana waiting for their Christmas show to start when her phone rang. It was a California area code.
“This is the Grammy people,” she remembers telling her husband. And it was.
They told her she was a finalist for the first-ever Music Educator Award. She knew she had been nominated. She’d been going through the motions for a couples months now—sending in testimonials, answering interview questions and sending in pictures—but never imagined being a finalist, let alone making it to the top 10.
“It’s been a whirlwind of lots of love and support from people. It’s been a really nice Christmas present,” she said. “To have this as a reminder that I made a difference there, it’s really heartwarming and very, I don’t know, overwhelmingly kind.”
Kouns and her former high school’s choral program will each receive a $1,000 honorarium, money that can no doubt be used to buy new music or costumes for the program, she said.
If she wins, which will be announced during the Grammy Awards on Jan. 26, the school will also receive an additional $10,000 honorarium and Kouns will be flown to Los Angeles to accept the award.
“It would be totally exciting [to win], I’m not going to sugarcoat that, but it really seems like such an impossibility that I can’t even wrap my mind around that,” she said.
The former teacher admits that financial support for music programs is tough, especially in a state that she feels doesn’t support the fine arts enough. However, if she doesn’t win, she is just glad she’s able to give back to a school that’s given her so much.
More than 30,000 current and past educators were nominated by friends, former students and colleagues for the Grammy award.
“For every performer who makes it to the Grammy stage, there was a teacher who played a critical role in getting them there,” says the award’s website. “It’s time to say thank you to ALL of those teachers who put in ALL of those hours to make sure that ALL of us love and play music today!”
CHOIR WAS THE "COOL" THING TO DO
Kouns joined Horizon in 2000 when the program had 5 ensembles made up of 240 kids. During her tenure she added a sixth ensemble and had more than 300 students singing on stage.
In an age where school choirs and glee clubs are becoming "cool" again thanks to television shows, such as “Glee,” and movies (ie: "Pitch Perfect"), Horizon seems to have busted through the social stigma ahead of its time.
Kouns said when 15 percent of the school is in choir and walking the halls wearing their team shirts to help promote an upcoming concert, the students’ pride was obvious.
“I spent a lot of my energy making sure it was about so much more than the music. That’s still my philosophy today,” she said. “You’re teaching a person. You’re using something like music to help bring out their best qualities.”
She also says it wasn’t uncommon for the homecoming king and queen to be choir students.
Of teaching, she says it’s about maintaining clear expectations and demanding a student’s best. It’s not always about disciplining a student for being wrong.
She recalls moments when students would jokingly write down the date and time she complimented them during class.
“They realized I wasn’t just throwing praises at them and not meaning it. They were working for it and when they earned it, they knew,” she said.
She also credits the school’s two former choral directors and parent volunteers for helping to build the program and conduct fundraising.
Until then, Kouns is scheduled to judge a competition in Ohio the day before the Grammy Awards, but if she wins, her husband said he’s sure they can make an exception to fly out to Los Angeles.
The Grammy Awards air on Jan. 26, 2014.
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