SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — South Kingstown High School Choral Director and music teacher Ryan Muir was named one of 25 semifinalists for The Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum’s 2021 Music Educator Award, given out annually by the academy to honor current music educators from across the U.S. for making a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and commitment to maintaining music education in schools.
Muir is the sole Rhode Islander on the list, and one of only four New Englanders who made the cut for the final 25 out of nearly 2,000 nominations, with the finalists being named in December and the winner announced during the week leading up to the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards on Jan. 31.
“It was really exciting to be considered from all of these educators across the country and, more importantly, to be the only one from Rhode Island,” Muir said. “Representing basically our state feels really nice.”
Music has always been front and center in Muir’s life. As a guitarist, vocalist and trumpet player for Cranston-based band Monty Are I, Muir won the 2002 WBRU Rock Hunt and 2003 Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands, the latter of which earned the band a spot on the Vans Warped Tour. Muir spent much of the ‘00s on the road touring with bands such as My Chemical Romance, Sum41 and Taking Back Sunday. As the touring life slowed down around 2010, Muir took his talents into music education, working as a music teacher in Portland, Oregon for a few years before heading back home to the Ocean State and taking the job as Choir Director at South Kingstown High School.
“We were a national touring band for about eight years before I started teaching, so that was a step in my path in becoming an educator,” Muir said.
As a choir director and music teacher, Muir says he has always worked to build a welcoming and accepting community to allow all students to partake in and share their love of music.
“The program was small when I started there and I’ve put a lot of time into creating a community at SK through the music program with me and the band director, Chris Benz, who’s an amazing educator as well and we’ve done our best to make it as inviting and inclusive to everybody as possible,” Muir said. “That just started with lots of communication with the elementary schools and the middle schools to tell them what our program is about, so that when they get to the high school they were psyched about the program, and then to treat the kids in the program with respect and acceptance.”
Part of developing that tight-knit community has been setting up overnight retreats for the choirs and participating in competitions across the region through Music in the Parks, a group that pairs performances at theme parks for high school choirs and bands with local college music festivals.
“(Two years ago) our band and our choir came home, when we were allowed to travel, with a bunch of awards, which made them feel really great,” Muir said. “It’s things like that that gets kids really amped on the program,” Muir said.
Muir first found out about his nomination for the Music Educator Award back in March and had to submit a video profile of himself to the organization. From there, he made it to the initial cut of 250 in June and submitted more material.
“They ask you three questions and you have to answer them basically about your program and your path to education,” Muir said. “It was great to share how I got to where I am and the struggles and successes.”
In particular, Muir appreciated being able to tell his story via video.
“It also was in a format that I appreciate,” Muir said. “I got to make videos rather than writing essays and presenting it that way I was able to do it in a way that was more comfortable to me.”
However, as his initial nomination came, so did the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which quickly challenged his ability to perform his job as music educator.
“It’s been very difficult,” Muir said. “I’m constantly reading posts from colleagues about how difficult this is and I 100 percent agree, especially the start of this year, it’s even harder than it was in March. In March, we knew all of the students were leaving, so we had a really good relationship with them and we knew them on a personal level, so getting on a Zoom call felt a little better, a little easier. You start the new year with a lot of new students, so it’s tough to build relationships not just in choir but in every discipline. The relationship between you and your teacher is what makes education work, and so right now a lot of us are struggling with that for sure.”
After in-person learning was suspended last school year, Muir wanted to make sure his students still had the opportunity to perform the songs they had been working on for their spring concert. So, he decided to embark on a series of virtual chorus videos, which soon spread locally over Facebook.
“(It) just made the kids feel really appreciated and that the music they had been learning didn’t go to waste,” Muir said.
As for his job overall, Muir says he loves being able to make and share music every day with his students and hopes to be able to perform with them again soon.
“I get to just make music every day with my students and we get to perform together,” Muir said. “I miss that the most, so I think we work towards a goal of getting in front of a crowd and letting them show off what they’ve learned and I get to do that every day, it’s great.”