Charles Cushinery isn’t just one of 10 finalists nationwide for the Grammy music educator award.
The Clark High School orchestra teacher and music department coordinator is a finalist for the second time.
“It was humbling the first time. Two years in a row is very humbling. It’s a little scary, too. Don’t want to be the next Susan Lucci,” Cushinery said Tuesday, referencing a TV soap opera star nominated 18 times before winning an Emmy.
He jokes about his nominations, but he takes his job very seriously.
It’s the first day of the winter concert. He’s running to the gym to make sure it will be pitch black for the night’s event, which features a light show and electronic dance music mingled with the orchestra.
Back in his classroom, students settle in the theater seats to eat their lunches Tuesday. His orchestra class gathers onstage for practice. And Cushinery, called Mr. Cush by students, is stopped midway up the aisle by a few students holding a Christmas stocking.
The girls hand it to Cushinery, noting his likeness to Santa Claus. The beard, the glasses. The big smile. The ponytail made of cottonballs glued to the back of the stocking.
Cushinery holds it next to his face, and they all laugh before he takes his place onstage.
On the back wall, 17 years of class photos speak to what Cushinery has built at Clark. It starts with the 1997 class photo, a close-up of 39 students standing together. His first class.
In the following years, Cushinery started the school’s guitar program that quickly grew and came to need a full-time teacher. After that came the piano program and many more class photos, ending with last year’s orchestra photo of more than 350 students.
“For some of these kids, their home life is crap. This is their own special place,” said Lisa Ratigan, a member of the Las Vegas Philharmonic recruited by Cushinery 10 years ago to coach the upper-string students, like the violinists. She nominated him for the award. “I just think he makes the kids feel comfortable and successful.”
That wasn’t an accident. Cushinery’s room is open to students at all times, and his classes are open to all musicians.
“There are no bad musicians. Just musicians who are less skilled than others,” said Cushinery, referencing the musical backgrounds of his students. “You have to respect that. Kids sense it when you do.”
Students set their own bar here, unlike other classes where students are all given the same test, he said. One student might have played since he was 3 years old and another might just be trying to master four notes.
“Their success is their success,” Cushinery said. “It’s a refuge from all the static out there. It’s the glue that keeps them in here.”
“It’s fun,” Cushinery said of his class. “Why can’t we do things that are important and fun?”
The school’s music program has grown to such a presence under Cushinery’s stewardship that 93 percent of Clark students take a fine arts course, a staggering figure for the academic powerhouse that is Clark, known for its nationally recognized math, science, applied technology and finance academies. Clark produced 14 national merit semifinalists last year, more than any Nevada school, for the second consecutive year, according to the National Merit Scholarship Program competition, which honors the top 1 percent of America’s high school seniors based on their PSAT scores of the previous year.
Music isn’t technically a part of the PSAT or the distinctive academies, but Cushinery argues that it couldn’t be more intertwined for the students.
Math and science are ever-present for musicians, who calculate rhythms and read music sheets while training their ears to understand the physics of pitch, harmony and timing. It’s applicable science providing immediate feedback.
It’s not that math and science classes aren’t important, said Cushinery, who came late to the teaching profession. He was a professional violinist in rock and jazz bands in Wisconsin for 25 years before finishing his bachelor’s degree in fine arts at age 43. He came to Las Vegas to teach and continue with college, earning a master’s in music education and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Through the metaphor of music, we can make them successful,” Cushinery said of his approach to students.
Clark Principal Jill Pendleton is convinced. The Academy of Math, Science and Applied Technology added Arts to its title two years ago, she said. All academy students are now required to take a year of the arts. Most were doing it already, due largely to Cushinery’s efforts.
“It’s who we are,” said Pendleton, noting that the academy’s name change was to “really formalize and recognize the impact arts have on our culture at Clark.”
The students demand it, said Pendleton, noting how many academically driven students have told her they don’t just want the advanced math and science courses but the arts as well, which is why they picked Clark’s academy.
“The kids are sending you a message. They realize the importance of the music and arts,” even though many adults don’t, said Cushinery, noting the emphasis on math, writing/reading and the sciences — the tested subjects — ever since Sputnik kicked off the space race in 1957.
The impact of art has been overlooked.
“We say we appreciate it,” he said of the United States. “But our actions don’t always follow our words.”
Education officials from other countries, such as China, have started to realize that and have visited the school’s arts program, he said.
The school has expanded its arts programs over the past few years when many Clark County schools cut such courses in the grips of the recession and budget crunching, said Pendleton, thanking Cushinery for being much of the reason for that.
“He’s the heartbeat of our school,” she said.
Cushinery continues to push for more courses, starting an electronic dance music club this year and planning a course next year that will use curriculum constructed at the school.
“I see a lot of kids walking around with ear buds,” Cushinery said. “They’re not listening to Tchaikovsky.”
Teaching electronic dance music has meant some learning for Cushinery. “Wait for the drop. What’s the drop?” said the 60-year-old.
The Music Educator Award winner will be announced Feb. 7 during the first night of the Grammy awards. The top prize will include $10,000. When Cushinery received the finalist’s prize of $1,000 for him and $1,000 for the school, he invested his prize in the classroom, building the electronic dance music program.
Contact Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @TrevonMilliard.