For Desert Wind Middle School music teacher Roger Wagner II, classes are about more than sick beats and woodwinds.
In addition to teaching kids how to play instruments and compose music using digital tools, Wagner II is also helping develop their social and life skills. For Wagner, who is also assistant marching band director at Maricopa High School, and his wife Michelle, music teacher at Legacy Traditional School, music is part of daily life.
Wagner received his bachelor’s degree in music from Grand Valley State University in Michigan and began teaching in Maricopa in 2013. At that time, Desert Winds had around 90 kids in band and orchestra. The school’s choir was defunct. Further, he learned many elementary schools in the Maricopa Unified School District didn’t have any music education.
“They could realistically could go K through 12 without having a music class,” Wagner said.
Wagner immediately set out to revamp the school’s music programming and restart its choir. He estimates more than 300 students now participate in the school’s band, orchestra and choir.
Working toward his master’s in music education from Arizona State University while teaching at Desert Wind, Wagner began developing his modern music class in 2014. The class gave him an opportunity to experiment with a new kind of music education for his students.
“When you get in your car and you flip on the radio, you’re probably not listening to concert band,” Wagner explained. “There’s a cognitive dissonance not only for me internally, but for the profession about what’s the future.”
Wagner happened to be in the right place at the right time and met the brand manager for Ableton Live, a company that produces tools for creating and arranging music digitally. At first just using Ableton’s software, which the company gave to him through an educational partnership, Wagner began creating a course that would help prepare students to create and play their own music.
“In music education, we call that [course] more of a music industry sort of thing,” Wagner said. “What we’re working towards is having almost a little boutique record label.”
At first Wagner didn’t have instruments for the class, so he began by making instruments from reclaimed materials, what the unpretentious teacher preferred to call “trash.” Eventually, he was able to secure a number of guitars from a tax credit and later ukuleles as well. After reducing the class size slightly, he had enough instruments for each student.
“I’ve seen him grow that program considerably since he’s been here with the integration of technology,” said Desert Wind Principal June Celaya. “I think some of that is because he uses some really cool assessment approaches so that kids can really evaluate their own personal growth with it and how they’re playing.”
Celaya noted Wagner has also been very successful in engaging the community by partnering with ASU, CenturyLink and others. He also worked to integrate school music more deeply into Maricopa, helping make the band a fixture at parades and other public events.
While his integration of technology and contemporary music have done much to help him build his school’s music programing, his passion and humor are still key to his success as a teacher and music director.
“It’s really cool because he’ll use fun analogies when teaching us about intonation and notes and stuff like that,” said eighth grader Bella Ebner, who is also president of the school’s Band Club. “He just likes to make sure that we’re all on the same page and that we’re all getting better together.”
This story appears in the November issue of InMaricopa.