November 4, 2015     Jon Linker

Band Director Spotlight: Phil Aguglia – Thinking Outside the Box with 130 Students


Band Director Spotlight Series: Meet fellow band directors while they share their experiences, advice and tips for teaching band. This week, we are happy to introduce you to Phil Aguglia, Band Director at Kenmore East High School in Tonawanda, New York.

Walk around Kenmore East High School in Tonawanda, NY, just north of Buffalo, and you’ll find the sound of music everywhere.  In and around the band room, you might hear kids busy practicing their instruments, having an impromptu jam session, working with a guest artist, or putting on a concert with their own combos in a makeshift theater they created in the school.

Venture out in the community, and you’re likely to find Kenmore band groups there as well, playing real gigs in venues around town.

It’s all part of band director Phil Aguglia’s vision to get kids from this blue-collar suburb in Western New York to share in his passion for music.

A band director for 22 years, Aguglia came to Kenmore East in 2002 and has won 9 Teacher of the Year Awards. Last year, he was one of 25 semifinalists, out of 7,000 nominees nationwide, for the 2015 Grammy Foundation Music Educator Award.

“My sole purpose in this profession is to give every student an opportunity to experience music education through band that will excite, engage, and challenge them,” Aguglia said.

There are currently 130 students in the Kenmore East band program, which consists of not only a Concert Band, Symphonic Wind Ensemble, two jazz ensembles and a pep band but also numerous chamber groups and combos, many of which the students organize and rehearse themselves. And all of them are playing all the time.

A few years ago, Aguglia started experimenting with a new 6-level curriculum he created to give students the foundation they needed for success. Beginners start at level one with the most advanced students reaching level 6, hopefully by their junior year. Each level has 8 components requiring students to learn instrument maintenance, technique, musicianship, playing by ear, sight-reading, and vocabulary.  Attending live performances and learning about different music careers is also part of the curriculum.  Aguglia teaches all 130 students himself in group lessons every 6 days.

Since he implemented this approach, Aguglia has seen dramatic results. For example, in three years, the number of students who could play all 12 major scales for seating auditions went from 3 to 30.

“You have to think outside the box a little bit, and you can find stuff that works,” Aguglia said. “That’s the point; to educate the kids. I’m not really a concert driven person. I’m about educating them.”

Despite having a budget of only about $300, Aguglia has also managed to bring in close to 100 guest artists a year and give his students travel opportunities as well. He does it through fundraisers, grants and help from his booster group and various foundations.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, Aguglia and his band traveled to New Orleans to donate $20,000 worth of instruments they had collected and repaired to a school. They returned to New Orleans a few years after that, and more recently, they took a trip to New York City and immersed themselves in the jazz history of Harlem.

“You have to be genuine and sincere and really believe in what you’re doing and really care about the kids first.”

Aguglia believes the best way to get kids interested in music and band is to first show you are interested in them as people.

“You have to be genuine and sincere, really believe in what you’re doing, and really care about the kids first,” he said. “I also realize it’s a very social activity. I have a huge band council (40–50 kids), so everybody has a say. Everyone is involved.”

Besides his work at Kenmore East, Aguglia is the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Music is Art, a non-profit in Western New York created to explore music’s social, cultural, and educational impact on our communities. He also created the Winter Youth Jazz Festival for high school and middle school jazz ensembles and the Rising Star Scholarship Fund, which raises money for kids to attend summer music camps and festivals.

His advice to band directors, both new and old, is simple.

“You have to love and respect the job you have,” he said . “You have the luxury to work with young people, influence their thinking, and have a generational impact on the community. This is probably the most important job you can have. I feel blessed every day I have this job.”

Phil Aguglia is the Band Director at Kenmore East High School in Tonawanda, New York. He is the founder of Ken-Ton summer music camp – a five week program that provides lesson and ensemble opportunities to over 400 music students county wide. As owner and craftsman of PaGu Batons, he specializes in custom fitting professional quality hand-made batons for conductors worldwide, and, Chairman of the Board member of Music is Art.

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