When people see Kent Knappenberger with ice clinging to his bushy beard as he pushes his cow Giggle into its milking stall, most wouldn’t guess that he’s a classically trained musician. But three and a half miles away at Westfield Academy & Central Schools, in Westfield, N.Y., his eyes flash during rehearsals as his arms gesture in time with each musical crescendo. Eager students sit up straight, eyes fixed on every vibrant gesticulation. When he’s excited, his voice pitches upward in short, expressive tones, revealing a charisma that has inspired students for two and a half decades.
Those current and former students convinced The Grammy Foundation and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to select Knappenberger last month from more than 30,000 nominated teachers to win its inaugural Music Educator Award.
“[He’s] someone who just nourishes everything you care about in yourself,” Emily Parker, class of 2012 told CBS This Morning. “I realized that I actually did have this gift that I could use to help people and that’s made all the difference in my life.”
Wearing handwoven sweaters from wool shorn from his own sheep, Knappenberger, or Mr. K, as he’s known by students, is often described as zany and passionate. In his early days, he confronted a dismal lack of interest in music from the school’s male students and set out to change their attitudes. Knappenberger started a group called The Apemen to foster “a male identity associated with singing.” Boys now comprise nearly half of the 110 members of the senior chorus.
In contrast to the exclusive nature of many audition-based school music performance groups, Knappenberger’s choruses, bands, choirs, and ensembles are populated by a strikingly diverse array of students. These include “students with autism, students in special education, and every other type of learner one could imagine,” he said.
“We had fun as a group not because we were outstanding musicians, but because we were all given the same chance to learn together and play beautiful music together,” said former student Danielle Stoughton. “And somehow it always was beautiful.”
As a result, the music groups consistently won regional and statewide awards, regularly topping teams from well-funded suburban schools with elite music programs. In 2011, Knappenberger’s American Celtic String Band so impressed the New York State Music Association with its “inclusive, intergenerational, community-based ensemble,” that it invited the group to perform the following year at the bi-annual All-Eastern Music Conference in Hartford, Conn.
With his school budget facing cut after cut, Knappenberger makes every dollar count. Drawing on his Master’s degree from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, he often writes his own musical arrangements, using the money saved to slowly build up needed equipment. Westfield now boasts handbells, steel drums, and a battery of folk instruments, along with other instruments.
He purchased the handbells one at a time after he learned several local churches lacked ringers for their handbell choirs. Then he taught his students how to play the instrument so they could participate in their church choirs. When he found out about a group of students involved in a community effort to combat hunger, Knappenberger wrote and directed a musical for them, generating several thousand dollars used to buy malaria nets, dig a well in Africa, and support a ministry to street children in Brazil.
Many students point to Knappenberger as a decisive influence in their life. Laura Lee Anderson, 29, cites Knappenberger as a chief model for her work with Urban Impact Pittsburgh, teaching Shakespeare to at-risk urban youth. “For as long as I can remember, my goal has been ‘to be the Mr. K of theatre,’” she said.