La Crosse, WI
Gerald (a.k.a. – “Jerry”) Kember was born and raised in Batavia, NY and graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in music education. After three years of teaching, he played professionally and traveled around the U.S. After that, he earned a masters degree in communications from Syracuse University and worked briefly in television before returning to a teaching career. He taught for 10 years in New York State and then accepted a music department head position in Manitowoc. He has been in La Crosse for the last 21 years where he has served as supervisor of fine arts, associate superintendent of instruction, and since 2003, superintendent. He has also been president of Wisconsin Foundation for School Music (WFSM), Wisconsin School Music Association (WSMA) and Wisconsin Music Educators Association (WMEA). He is currently on the WSMA and WFSM Board of Directors. In addition, Jerry was appointed by Governor Doyle to serve on the Wisconsin Arts Board for the last nine years. In his role as superintendent, he also serves on a number of community boards in La Crosse. He and his wife Nan have three children — a son, Jamie, and twin daughters Kelsey and Jessie.
How has your family been involved with music?
Nan is a musician having played clarinet, violin and piano. She played for a number of years in the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra and in small ensembles. Our children are also musicians and all performed multiple times in the WSMA State Honors Band, Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble. Jamie is currently on the staff of WFSM, teaches at Madison Area Technical College, plays trombone in the Madison area, has a studio of students and his own band called “The Big Payback” (which isn’t paying much!).
How did your early experiences with music prepare you for your career?
I’ve actually spoken and written on this topic a number of times. The truth of the matter is that my background, education and participation in music have provided all the skills I’ve needed to serve as a music educator, school administrator and advocate for the arts. Knowing what it takes to achieve excellence, understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, recognizing the power of collaboration and realizing the joy that comes through creative expression – these are just a few of the important concepts that I’ve learned and experienced through music. If you haven’t read Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, I would highly recommend it. Pink describes the skills for the 21st century and it becomes perfectly clear that the arts, and especially music, teach exactly the aptitude and abilities for successful leaders. In my opinion, there isn’t another document that makes a better case for the value of music in our schools.
You have been a board member of all three music associations housed at the Wisconsin Center for Music Education for many years. What motivated you to become involved initially and what keeps you involved?
I have always been actively involved in professional education organizations. When I moved to Wisconsin it was important for me to network with other music educators and to expand my music teaching experiences. I have to say that I would attribute my greatest growth as a professional educator to my involvement in WMEA and WSMA. Because of the leadership experiences I’ve had in these organizations I’ve learned about strategic planning, organizational change processes, group facilitation, goal setting, improvement strategies, presentation techniques and so much more. My involvement in these professional organizations has contributed more to my professional growth than any college course, educational conference, seminar, or workshop. I stay involved to continue learning and try to give back to the organizations that have given me so much.
You were named “Superintendent of the Year” for this school year. Congratulations! What do you think the single biggest issue is in regards to music education in our schools and what can we do to address it?
Accountability. Student achievement and how it is measured continues to be the number one priority in our schools and I would expect that to be true in the years ahead. To maintain the value of music in our schools it will be important for us to clearly demonstrate how teaching music improves student learning. If music is simply viewed as entertainment or another form of creative expression, we will slowly see this learning opportunity slip away, lose support and the funding necessary to maintain quality music programs. Helping administrators, parents and our community fully understand the learning that takes place in the music classroom, how it contributes to the complete development of a child and the quality of life they will enjoy in the future has never been more important. We need to rethink our established practices as music educators and find new ways to be accountable for learning and the success of every child.
How do you see the Wisconsin Center for Music Education affecting students and music programs in the La Crosse area?
WSMA and WMEA have experienced unbelievable growth in the last 50 years. From an original staff of one, the center now includes 17 people in both full and part-time positions. These professionals deliver programs and services to students and music educators across Wisconsin. As our staff has grown, so have the number of music opportunities for students and professional development options for music teachers. When I hear an adult group perform, I’m reminded each time that the quality of the music performance has improved so much over the years because of the musical experiences they enjoyed in our schools and colleges. I recall the concerts in the park that I heard and performed in as a child, and there is simply no comparison to the level of musicianship in today’s ensembles. Some of the credit certainly belongs to the center, which is staffed with professionals whose sole mission is to improve the state of music education in our schools.
Do you have any favorite music memories?
There are many and the best have been while seated in the audience watching my own children experience such tremendous success making music. I’ve also had the good fortune to hear many professional groups, but one that I’ll never forget was at an MENC National Conference. Music students from the Cleveland Institute were performing West Side Story on a raised platform in the center of a large arena. In my opinion, it was the wrong venue and I couldn’t imagine what this group of music majors could possibly do to thrill a hall full of music educators who knew this musical so well. That night Leonard Bernstein’s son stepped out on stage before the production and read excerpts from his father’s diary – the notes Bernstein wrote at the end of each day during the original rehearsals of this show. That set the tone for what was to be a magical production of this well-loved musical. Now if you want to know one about me personally… I can still picture my high school band director peering across the 1965 New York All-State Band and signaling to me with five fingers and then one, trying to figure out whether I was seated first or last chair. I’ll let you decide which one it was. You see, those high school memories do stay with you!
What kind of advice would you offer to a student who would like to pursue a career in music?
I sometimes have the opportunity to speak to music education majors and the advice is always the same. Get involved in CMENC and when the time comes, WMEA. If your experience is anything like mine, you will learn so much more about your profession because active participation in these organizations ignites your passion for making and teaching music.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Keep making music. You’ll be forever young, a better teacher, and mindful of why you wanted to be a music educator.