According to retired Berkeley music teacher Jesse Anthony, “Music is the language that has the most possibilities of communication. There is no language that communicates better than music. That language, it goes deeper that what we can create in word, it gets to the heart and soul of people, it communicates feelings on that level. One soul can talk to another soul with music.”
For Anthony, music has been the soul of a 34-year career with the Berkeley public schools, where he has taught band to elementary, junior high and high school students. Earlier this week, those efforts were formally recognized when Anthony was awarded the prestigious teacher of the year award from the Bay Area’s classical radio station, KDFC.
“He is tireless in his efforts to keep music alive in the schools,” wrote community member Carrol Carpenter in the short essay she wrote to KDFC to nominate Anthony. “He rallies his co-workers, parents, administrators, and has been an advocate to school boards over the course of his years of service to keep music in the schools. He is an inspiration to all who know him.”
“I’m thrilled for him. I think he is probably our most tireless champion in terms of the value of music for students,” said Suzanne McCulloch, visual and performing arts coordinator for the Berkeley Unified School District.
Until he retired last year, Anthony spent years commuting between different Berkeley schools, ensuring that as many students as possible were exposed to music. At times he has visited as many as six schools in one day. Through budget cuts and hard times, Anthony said he has been committed to ensuring that music and the arts in general are a universal and regular part of the curriculum, just like math or science.
“We would not have the trouble we have if the arts were really pushed,” said Anthony. “Art occupies your mind, it gives you value. Music empowers, the students become aware of their ability to create.”
Outside of teaching, Anthony has sat on committees, lobbied the school board, and raised funds to ensure the Berkeley school’s music programs survive during financial slumps. Even today, though officially retired, he still teaches the seventh and eighth grade band at Martin Luther King Middle School five days a week. Anthony has seen generation after generation of musicians develop at the schools, and has helped some of the more famous Berkeley students during their formal years. His band at King, for example, has always been a feeder for the renowned and award winning Berkeley High Jazz Band.
“There is nobody quite like Mr. Anthony,” said Nate Schneider, a seventh-grade trumpet player at King. “He’s had a big influence on me.”
Schneider gained notoriety last year when he collected over $300 as a street musician as part of his community service obligation before his Bar Mitzvah. He donated all the money to the Berkeley schools to try and ease the current budget crisis. Schneider and a friend also provided musical entertainment during the Berkeley Public Education Foundation annual luncheon, where he honored Anthony for his help.
Schneider said Anthony’s commitment to providing students the opportunity to hear and play music with a band five days a week has been a tremendous help. He also credits Anthony for helping him build a passion for jazz, the main diet for the seventh and eighth grade band.
“People take what he does for granted, but he’s helped a couple generations of students, so I thought he should be honored,” said Schneider.
Anthony said he grew up at a time when it was hard to get access to music lessons. He was born in Newport, Arkansas, and quickly joined the army at 18 in order to play in their band. He ended up getting his masters degree in music.
Along with the award, which will be formally presented on May 27 at the school’s end of the year concert, is a $1,000 grant that KDFC will give to the school. Anthony hopes to use it to help pay one of several volunteer assistants who come into his class and help out with the 51 students in the seventh and eighth grade band.
On Friday, which is a non-obligatory day for the band students, but instead an opportunity for those who need more help to come in, Anthony will be in the band room working with the students. As part of an incentive, he’ll have donuts, which he buys out of his own pocket. Regardless of how many students show up, Anthony said he is there to help.
“I have a theory,” said Anthony. “As long as kids are excited, then now is the time to get a hold of them.”