LOS ANGELES – “I am prone to emotional breakdowns at any time,” Westfield Academy Central School’s Kent Knappenberger warned the crowd of music industry luminaries in Los Angeles on Saturday as he accepted the inaugural Music Educator Award from the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation.
Knappenberger delivered a stirring speech about the importance of music and fine arts education for children – “music helps us construct who we are; it makes us become more fully human” – words that would have been familiar to his WACS students over the past 25 years. And he choked up toward the end as he thanked the Grammy Foundation “for caring about a small school in upstate New York, and caring that my student Luis has a violin.”
Knappenberger’s award was presented as part of the Special Merit Awards ceremony held the day before the Grammy Awards were handed out on Sunday. WACS’ music maestro and his wife Nannette and daughters Lucy, Esther and Amanda walked the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Wilshire Ebell theater along with music legends including Ringo Starr, Kris Kristofferson and the Isley Brothers.
The magnitude of the moment was not lost on the Knappenberger clan as they were escorted from interview to interview by Recording Academy staff members.
Knappenberger was selected for the award from a field of more than 32,000 applicants. He was nominated for the award nearly a year ago by two former students and the parent of a current student. The award comes with a $10,000 honorarium for the teacher, which Knappenberger said he would use to buy instruments, sheet music, equipment and perhaps some musical “experiences” for students that would otherwise have been out of reach.
Knappenberger made it all the way through a rigorous nationwide competition because he is the embodiment of the inspirational, dedicated music teacher that the award was designed to celebrate, according to Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, which administers the Grammy Awards.
“We wanted to use the spotlight and platform of the Grammys to put the focus on the very important role that music educators play in making sure that young people have a chance to be exposed to music,” said Portnow.
Portnow called Knappenberger “a force of nature” and noted that the two had spent some time comparing notes on beards.
As he surveyed the scene at the Wilshire Ebell, Knappenberger joked that he also ought to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting, because he has known that he was the winner since December but had to keep it a secret until last week. Although it was hard for the family to keep quiet, it also gave them “time to adjust and prepare for all this,” Knappenberger said.
Before his award was presented by Portnow, Knappenberger was introduced with a tribute video describing his background and his many accomplishments. The sheer volume of the choirs and musical groups he directs at WACS impressed the audience enough to give him a standing ovation as he took the stage.
One astonished woman in the crowd summed up the sentiments of many in Chautauqua County by remarking as she applauded: “Boy, does he deserve this.”
Cynthia Littleton is an entertainment writer who lives in Westfield, N.Y.