“Thicker on the string! It’s a tango!” Three young string players continue making music as Charles “Chuck” Cushinery offers his rehearsal notes, sliding by them in Clark High School’s music technology lab. The CCSD teacher, who has been directing orchestras at Clark since 1997, was again named a top-10 finalist for the Grammy Foundation’s Music Educator Award in December, beating out more than 7,000 teachers across the country. With the Grammys set to air February 8 (8 p.m., CBS), we tapped the local educator and jazz violinist to discuss the prestigious honor, Clark’s innovative music program (EDM in high school?!) and what it’s like to hear his orchestra fill New York City’s acoustically perfect Carnegie Hall.
You were again named a top-10 finalist for the Grammy Music Educator Award. No one else can claim that, as the award is only in its second year. What was your reaction? The whole process is very humbling. The first time you’re a little bit shocked, and you go, “Why me?” And the second time you go, “Really, why me?” And it’s very flattering. I’m not used to such things; I’m a little bit uncomfortable [about] it. But I appreciate the fact that somebody outside of my immediate sphere of contacts is recognizing that what we’re doing here at Clark High School and [in] CCSD is valuable. And it’s making a contribution to society as a whole.
You’ve conducted your students twice now at Carnegie Hall. What was that experience like? Oh my gosh, Carnegie Hall is the place. It’s a cathedral. And for every musician, that is the goal, to set foot on that stage and create music. It’s a magical place. There is no place in the world that feels like that, that sounds like that. The kids who went the first time now understand the historical significance of what they did and I’m now getting that same sense from students who went on the second trip—that they were on the same stage as this person, that this is American musical history. It was an awesome experience.
Are the acoustics as amazing as everybody says? No. They’re better. They’re absolutely better. The acoustics in Carnegie Hall are magical. … We were in rehearsal and we were just getting tuned to the hall, and one of the hall workers came up to the front of the stage over by our cello section, and said, “Cello section, I want you to know that this is Carnegie Hall and you’re working too hard. Let the hall do its work …” So it is that good. It’s perfect.
Many high schools ask that students arrive with skills to play in a musical group, but you have a beginning orchestra at Clark. Did you start that program? Yes, we started that. We found that there was a whole contingent of students, for whatever rhyme or reason when they were in their middle school years, they never had the opportunity to be exposed to organized music or instrumental music or string music. And they had this huge desire. My personal philosophy is a philosophy of inclusion—if you want to be here, we’ll find something for you to do and we’ll make it productive. So we began a beginning string program. It’s not designed to make you a violin player or a viola player—it’s designed to give you a working knowledge of what it takes to be that. We’ve had students who started in their freshman year and they finished in their senior year; they got four years of string playing here.
Tell me about your most memorable moment at Clark. I have very fond memories and very dear memories of students who are very advanced, who have gone on to do great things after this. We’ve had kids go to Juilliard; we’ve had kids go to the Peabody Institute [at Johns Hopkins University], we’ve had kids go to Curtis [Institute of Music].
Those are really special memories. The proudest memories for me are the memories of the students who come from a less-than-ideal circumstance, who have used our music program as a refuge and as a catalyst for them to complete their high school career. I just had a message yesterday from one [former student], who is the first person in her family to not only graduate from high school, but just graduated [college] and got her teaching certificate. It’s a career full of wonderful memories.
The top-10 finalist distinction came with a $2,000 prize. What did you put that money toward? The philosophy of our music department is inclusion, and if you walk down the halls here you’re going to see a lot of kids with earbuds in their ears. I venture to guess that if you look on their device, that ain’t Beethoven being played. That segment of our student population has been underserved by the traditional band/orchestra/choir/guitar program that we have here. So with my award money from last year, I started [what we call] the EDM Club. It is a music technology lab, and that technology lab is going to be rolled over this coming year into a technology class. The idea is to capture those kids who haven’t had that organized music experience before and introduce them to the process of making the music that they’re listening to, and getting them into our fold that way. We’ve got 93 percent of the student body involved in the arts programs, but I’ve got 7 percent that I haven’t gotten yet. So I’m going after that 7 percent.