Cerabino: County schools chief sounds his horn about arts education

You probably don’t know what a euphonium is.

Even some musicians don’t. Think of a euphonium as the tuba’s little brother, or maybe what would happen if a French horn and a sousaphone had a baby.

It’s a low-brass instrument you typically find in marching and concert bands but practically nowhere else.

I got to thinking about euphoniums while listening to the graduation speech Palm Beach County Superintendent of Schools Donald Fennoy gave to high school graduates last month.

As is custom, the superintendent sits on the dais during these ceremonies and delivers the same speech to each school’s graduating class. Fennoy has been the superintendent only since March, so this was his first go-around.

And he delivered a fine little speech about the things his parents taught him. How his mom reminded him about love and gratitude, while his dad drilled in him of the importance of setting an alarm clock every day and getting out of bed “with purpose.”

But what struck me was what Fennoy didn’t write down.

It happened when he got up to speak to the graduates of the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. The Dreyfoos graduation was full of student musical performances — small ensembles, a violin soloist, a choir and the school’s symphonic orchestra.

They played and sang everything from Sondheim to the theme song from the “Game of Thrones” TV show, to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.”

It was the presence of all those young musicians that made Fennoy go beyond his script with a message he didn’t deliver to any of the other schools.

“This is a special moment. I will be truthful,” he told the Dreyfoos graduates. “I think music saved my life.”

Fennoy who has multiple degrees in education, including a doctorate in educational leadership and administration from the University of Central Florida, explained that his gateway to higher education was a music scholarship to Florida A&M University to play the euphonium in the school’s renowned “Marching 100” band, which he described as his “dream” band.

“I was an all-state euphonium player in the state of South Carolina,” Fennoy told the students. “I don’t know why I haven’t shared that with too many people. Probably because I can’t play as well as I used to.”

It’s not very often that you hear school superintendents talking about the importance of playing a mean euphonium.

Music and other areas of arts education have been relegated to near irrelevance in the world of standardized testing and the emphasis of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — courses.

So it was a special moment to hear from a lifelong educator talking about how learning was more than just a transactional process to a future paycheck.

“It was during high school that I could have gone bad,” Fennoy, 41, told me this week. “I saw the FAMU band play at a football game in South Carolina and I said, ‘I want to do that,’ and the band director at my high school said, ‘Listen, you’re going to really have to practice to get there.’”

And do better in school.

“Before that, I didn’t carry my books to class,” Fennoy said, “but now I was studying because I wanted to be in the band,” he said.

Fennoy’s father, a career military member was overseas with Operation Desert Storm at the time, he said, so his high school band director became a kind of surrogate father for him, making sure he took his SAT and keeping him from wasting away his last couple of years of high school.

“I spent all my free time in the band room,” Fennoy said.

Students shouldn’t have to pick between the arts and academics, he said. They both work hand in hand.

“I’m a better math person because of music,” he said.

As for the euphonium, well, he has put it aside for now. It would take a lot of practice to get back those chops he had in college.

And his alarm clock is waking him up these days with a new purpose, and he doesn’t want to blow the opportunity.

“Maybe after I’m superintendent for a year I’ll start playing again,” he said.

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