Phil Aguglia: 'Unsung heroes' of music education teach in BPS

Feb 26, 2019

Kenmore East High School Band Director Phil Aguglia is a product of the Buffalo Public Schools system. He spoke with WBFO's Nick Lippa about why it’s important to invest in urban education, but isn’t sure if it will lead to more minority musicians in larger orchestras.

Phil Aguglia teaching at Kenmore East High School
Credit Pintrest

Aguglia is the current High School Band Director at Kenmore East and grew up going to Hutch Tech High School, where students commonly start learning their instruments in ninth grade as ‘high school beginners’.

Before arriving at Kenmore East, Aguglia taught in Massachusetts, West Valley, New York, and Cleveland Hill, New York. He has applied the ‘high school beginner’ concept at every school he’s taught at, leading to an increase in student music participation each time.

“To me it was just normal,” said Aguglia. “Just start them at a later age. I see no problem with that because in the city there’s no such thing as a feeder system. You got kids in the building, you got to start them. You can’t rely on some school to feed you kids to play all the instruments. You have to be innovative.”

A ‘feeder system’ is what is most commonly found in suburban school districts. Elementary schools send kids to middle schools. Middle schools send kids to high schools.

You can think of it like a pyramid. You create a large base of students in grade 4/5 and as they progress through the district, numbers slowly dwindle. It’s not a common practice under htis model for kids to start playing in band after elementary school.

“The whole notion that in middle school, you don’t start any beginner kids because if they didn’t start in fourth grade, I’m not going to start you in fifth, sixth, or seventh grade, is nonsense,” Aguglia said. “What you’re really doing is limiting a whole population. And then what happens is they get to me in the high school and then I’ll grab them all and say, ‘How come you didn’t play before?’ The kids say, ‘Well they wouldn’t let me play because I didn’t pass an audition to get in to band.’ (I tell them) you don’t need to pass an audition here. Just show up and breathe. Will figure it out along the way.”

There’s a social aspect to this as well. Kids who join band as a beginner in high school may do so because of friends. Aguglia said what makes the system work is peer coaching.

Aguglia’s rationale and philosophy can be linked to his high school band teacher Floyd Fried.

Fried was an Eastman graduate cellist who studied with Suzuki and in turn taught his bands like Suzuki Strings.

“And here he was hired to be a string teacher in Buffalo in the sixties and then realized, ‘Gee, there’s no brass players in the All-City band. Why am I teaching strings when they can’t even come up with enough bodies to fill the All-City band?’” Aguglia said.

The whole notion that in middle school, you don't start any beginner kids because if they didn't start in fourth grade, I'm not going to start you in fifth, sixth, or seventh grade, is nonsense.

As a kid, Aguglia went from Public School 29, which had no instrumental music, to South Side Elementary. He said he was really fortunate South Side had just turned in to an elementary school at the time. The program there gave him opportunities he otherwise couldn’t have.

Aguglia said South Side didn’t have a ton of kids in the program there.  

“Floyd’s philosophy was much different. He wanted to make sure at Hutch Tech he had room for 93 chairs in his room. So he made sure he had 93 bodies in those chairs that were reflective of the complexion of the school,” he said.

After Aguglia graduated from Hutch Tech he went to Ithaca College. The predominately white environment was a stark difference from where he had spent most his life.

When given the opportunity, Aguglia would bring his college peers to Buffalo Public Schools to show what he believed to be truly innovative teachers at work.

“They looked at their situation and they said, ‘Okay. Well, I can’t get a rehearsal scheduled during the day. What’s my next option? Maybe I can get these kids to come before school. I can’t get enough instruments. So what can I do next? Well maybe I can get more mouthpieces and the kids will just share instruments and they won’t play them at the same time.’ I’m talking about real innovative ideas,” he said.

“I hate to say it like this, but at Kenmore East you could put anybody at my job and they’d probably be successful. I’m not able to do something that no one else could do. But in the city? You look at people like Amy Steiner who are just knocking the walls down just doing great stuff with kids. That’s because they’re thinking out of the box.”

And out of the box ideas like ‘high school beginners’ have produced some surprising results.

“I put together some numbers a few years ago for a particular reason. What I found was, of all the kids I’ve started about 40% of the kids I’ve taught were high school beginners. I was trying to find a distinction between kids who started in fourth or fifth grade versus kids who started later in life and whether or not they went into careers in music, were accepted to music schools. I found no difference. It was exactly half,” Aguglia said.

“At that time, it was 75 kids and it was like 35 of them were high school beginners that went on in to careers in music. There was no difference in scholarship money. There was no difference in the types of schools. It was just passion. When they started a little bit later they decided, ‘Wow. This is something I really connect with and is exciting for me.’ At an older age your dexterity is better. Your ability to follow directions is better. If you put a little time in, all of a sudden you can do great things. For example, if you start a ninth grader as a beginner, they can often times finish book one before Christmas if you start them in September. Whereas with a fourth grader, you might take a year or two to finish book one. Just because of readiness, ability, that kind of thing.”

So let’s say there’s a budgetary concern. The city says they can’t supply instruments under any feasibility to younger students. Can you look to a board member and suggest, maybe we develop more programs around the idea of high school beginners?

At Kenmore East you could put anybody at my job and they'd probably be successful... But in the city? You look at people like Amy Steiner who are just knocking the walls down just doing great stuff with kids. That's because they're thinking out of the box.

“There’s not a lot of tolerance for what I’m doing in the early stages. You have to really see it through to the end. To sell somebody on that as a standard is not the way you want to go,” Aguglia said.

“You really need to get these kids younger because we want to get the imprint in their brain. We want to get them in the younger ages. Getting music in their soul and tapping in to it. A lot of these kids who come out of the Buffalo schools I think that are really talented musicians, get a lot of music in their soul from their culture. The church, or the clubs that they’re in outside of school, their families, and then they bring that with them to school and it inspires other kids. You really don’t want to take away the access at a younger age. You really want to beef that up.”

And to implement a system with high school beginners successfully, you have to have a principal that supports you with a schedule that works. Aguglia said a lot of city schools struggle with this concept.

“Every building principal can pick who they want on their staff. They have ‘X’ number of dollars to hire their staff for that building. If they want more in school suspension monitors or they want more science teachers or they want more AIS support. They can say, ‘Well we can’t afford music. It’s a luxury so we’re not going to have it.’ They’re ignoring all the research that shows that the more music you expose these kids to, the better that they’re going to do everywhere else,” he said.

“It’s tough, because you can go in to all of these board meetings and talk to administrators until you’re blue in the face about statistics and data. People are going to go with their gut.”

And teachers often have very different ideas of how a curriculum is supposed to work. Educators in college are often taught a very systematic approach of starting kids on instruments.

“I’ll never forget I had a student teacher working with me. He was from Fredonia,” Aguglia said. “The supervisor he had that was a retired music educator from Williamsville. He said to this kid in an email, ‘Get through this chaos at Kenmore East, where they start kids as beginners at the high school and they have all these crappy sounds and then when you go to your second placement in Williamsville you’ll see what a real music program looks like.’”

Aguglia believes the current way we approach music is archaic.

“The whole concept of a concert band and an orchestra is a beautiful cultural thing. It’s part of our heritage right? And we want to continue that. But it’s a daily fight for all of us. It’s not just me,” he said. “So what if you don’t have a concert band?”

Aguglia said kids can learn harmonies, scales, chords, then make an arrangement from a song they are familiar with.

New Orleans trumpet player Shamarr Allen recently visited Kenmore East High School to speak with students and touched on playing other genres.

“Shamarr was talking to the kids about, ‘Yeah I can play everything there is on trumpet.’ He was able to get in to all the top schools as a high school kid. He said, ‘But my friends aren’t listening to the music that I’m playing. They don’t want to hear the Carnival of Venice. They want to hear hip-hop and rap.’ So he’s adapted his style of music so he can make trumpet hip in the genre that’s hip to his friends and his peer group. I think that’s something we’re missing and we’re not taping into enough of.”

So does Aguglia think increased funding to urban education would lead to more African-American musicians in orchestras?

“To be a classical/instrumental musician is pretty aristocratic,” Aguglia said.

Even with instrumental programs, private lessons and quality instruments are additional costs when aiming to develop the best of the best. And instruments like a professional cello could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

You want to fix a problem? Put a full time teacher in every one of those buildings. It's really about full time, in a building, developing a relationship. Because kids need people to trust.

“I don’t know if the classical music answer is there. I really don’t. I think that’s something that’s always going to kind of be an arm’s length away from us in this country until we figure out a way to train kids at a high level at a young age,” Aguglia said.

“If we’re looking for schools to answer that question about how we increase more people of color in orchestras, schools aren’t the answer there. That’s a whole different cultural situation. But if you want to talk about how do we educate… I’m more interested in seeing all people become better conversational musicians so they can express themselves, have music wherever they go, and put people of different likes and cultural backgrounds together and see what they can make together. I think that’s much more interesting to me.”

Aguglia said there are several unsung heroes teaching in the city currently. Working with next to nothing budgets. Working with high school beginners. Working with diverse classrooms. Giving these teachers a larger student base with access to instruments would benefit everyone in his eyes.

“You want to fix a problem? Put a full time teacher in every one of those buildings. It’s really about full time, in a building, developing a relationship. Because kids need people to trust. And if you’re only there part time, or the school says, ‘We don’t respect you enough as a teacher… we’re not going to put your ensemble in the schedule. You’re just kind of an extra body in the building and when you have time maybe you can teach some band kids.’ That’s a tough call. That’s not good for kids. That’s not good for the system. You’re wasting resources. And that’s my biggest beef with what’s going on right now with Buffalo. Things need to change.”