Band director Craig Johnson, who teaches at the middle school and high school in the Medical Lake School District, was recently awarded the 2019 Carolyn Hage Nunemaker Music Teacher Appreciation award by the Spokane Youth Symphony.
The award is given out every year to a teacher who has made “exemplary contributions to music education, programs and youth in the Inland Northwest.”
Johnson, who has worked in Medical Lake for 20 years, said he wasn’t told who nominated him for the award.
“It’s very humbling, and it’s very encouraging as a music teacher to get this award,” Johnson said. “There’s so many other music teachers in the area who would deserve this award.”
Johnson can trace his love of music to the fifth grade, when he decided to join the band and take up the clarinet.
“I was just a normal kid,” he said. “My parents weren’t even musicians.”
In the seventh grade he took up the saxophone and joined a jazz band. That’s when things really clicked for him.
“That really sparked a fire in me,” he said.
By the eighth grade he knew he wanted to be a band director, a goal that he achieved after earning a degree in music education from Central Washington University.
Along the way he also learned how to play the flute and the piano, but the saxophone remains his favorite.
When he was in college he was introduced to a wide variety of instruments, Johnson said. He has spent the past 24 years attending festivals and workshops, always looking to increase his knowledge so he can pass it on to his students.
“You grow as a music teacher,” he said. “You just get better every year. Being a band director entails lifelong growth.”
His first job was in the small town of Harrington, Washington, where he taught music in grades K-12 for four years.
“It was a great place to start,” he said.
When he first started in Medical Lake he taught music at Michael Anderson and Hallett elementary schools and the middle school. Nine years ago he shifted to the middle school and high school band director position. Doing both is uncommon, but not unheard of, Johnson said.
“There’s a few music teachers in the area that cover both middle school and high school,” he said.
He said he likes being able to teach students all during their middle school and high school years. “It’s a really unique benefit of being a band director,” he said. “I get to watch them blossom on their instruments. I’ll do more than 200 performances with these kids before they graduate.”
Johnson said it’s his students who keep him enthusiastic about his job.
“I am so excited and blessed to have unbelievable students to work with every day,” he said. “They keep me fired up every day. I have great kids. It’s just fun.”
One of the things he enjoyed about being in band when he was a teenager was the social aspect. Johnson said he was very shy and being in band helped him become more outgoing.
“I was one of the quietest kids in band,” he said. “I spoke through my saxophone.”
He believes his students can also get a lot out of the experience of being in band.
“Making music is a fun process, but it’s hard work,” he said. “For a lot of kids, the social side of band is a big deal.”
His students participate in a lot of concerts, halftime shows and community performances. One of their regular gigs is to play at the Spokane International Airport when veterans on an Honor Flight return from visiting the war memorials in Washington, D.C.
“Twice a year we go to the airport and play to welcome the veterans home,” he said. “It’s a huge honor to get to do that. The kids love it.”
He’s proud of the results his students have been getting with their hard work. This year 10 of his students were invited to join the All-State Band.
“That’s the most we’ve ever had,” he said.
Three years ago the high school jazz band took first place at the Bellevue Jazz Festival, and Johnson is hopeful it can repeat that this year.
“The jazz band is on fire this year,” he said.
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