By Sam Hodges*
Kent Knappenberger found himself in the thick of the recent Grammy weekend, being flown to Los Angeles, rubbing tuxedo shoulders with Ringo Starr and other pop legends.
Now he’s back home in rural upstate New York, teaching music in a public school all day and tending his farm before and after.
“I got up and milked the cow this morning,” he said by phone, referring to a registered Guernsey named Giggle. “No more glitz. No more red carpet.”
Knappenerger, son and grandson of United Methodist pastors and a United Methodist himself, won the first Grammy for a music educator. He beat more than 30,000 nominees from all 50 states, though he comes from a small school — 730 students in 12 grades — which can’t match the resources of wealthy suburban districts or private schools.
For 25 years, through innovation and drawing on what others say is uncommon energy and passion, he’s had the majority of upper-grade students at Westfield Academy and Central School in Westfield, N.Y., in music courses and joining music groups he leads.
Those groups include a steel drum ensemble, a Celtic string band, a hand bell ensemble and four choirs. To overcome the reluctance of teenaged boys to sing, he started a choir called Ape-Men.
Of the many Westfield Academy music groups, only one requires audition. The rest are wide open, with special needs kids sitting next to future music majors.
Even in classes, Knappenberger — known to students as “Mr. K” — puts making music above mere appreciation or historical study.
“The kids don’t know how many wives Bach had,” he said. “They learn things like how to write a fugue.”
Kelly DeLand of Westfield saw her son and other Westfield students surprise themselves and others in Knappenberger-led groups.
“He definitely pushes them beyond what they think they’re capable of,” she said. “There’s kids doing solos at concerts that you never think would.”
Knappenberger, 48, has had considerable local newspaper and TV coverage for his Grammy, and CBS This Morning did a segment on him. Dustin Hoffman saw that CBS piece and gave him a congratulatory call.
But the coverage has not emphasized the United Methodist influence, including on his musicianship. “It meant everything,” he said. “I had a dad who said things like, `People know hymns, and I want you to know them.’ So there’s a lot of hymns that I just sit down and play.”
From an early age
Knappenberger is the oldest child of the Rev. Lyston and Marilyn Knappenberger. Lyston Knappenberger, now retired, led churches in Pennsylvania and New York.
Lyston Knappenberger’s father was Harold Knappenberger, a United Methodist pastor. Lyston’s older brother, Harold Jr., is a retired United Methodist pastor.
For Kent Knappenberger, life as preacher’s kid meant growing up in a parsonage but also taking piano, beginning at age 7, from the church organist and pianist.
His mother tells a story about him that sounds a little like the time the boy Jesus was left behind in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph.
One Sunday, Mrs. Knappenberger said, she and her husband drove both family cars to church and arrived home for lunch with the other children, but not Kent. Each parent thought the other was driving him.
“Lyston ran back to the church, and he was up in one of the side classrooms, playing the piano,” she said. “He didn’t even know we’d left.”
Kent Knappenberger said the church gave him the chance to learn and perform music, including on hand bells. As a teen he led music ensembles and wrote hand bell compositions that were published.
During his father’s long tenure at First United Methodist in Mayville, N.Y., Knappenberger often went in summer to the nearby Methodist-founded Chautauqua Institution for concerts. Summers also meant trips to his mother’s family’s dairy farm in Maryland.
Knappenberger loved farm life and planned to major in animal science. He was still in high school, but taking courses at the State University of New York in Fredonia, when a mysterious stranger changed his plans.
The occasion was a concert for a men’s retreat at a United Methodist camp. Knappenberger led a youth hand bell choir in one of his compositions.
After the concert, a man Knappenberger didn’t know and has never seen again asked about his career plans. Knappenberger told him about animal science.
“He said, ‘That is not what God wants you to do. You should be studying music. You need to go change your major,’” Knappenberger recalled.
It took a while, but Knappenberger concluded that he should study music, both because he loved it and because it would have him around people more than dairy farming would.
So he changed his major at Fredonia and went on to get a master’s degree in harp performance from the Eastman School of Music. (Milking a cow and plucking a harp both require hand strength, he notes.) After graduating, he took the Westfield Academy job he has today.
“I would not be a music teacher if it were not for the way God got my attention at that United Methodist camp,” Knappenberger said.
Methodism also played a crucial role in the life he and wife, Nannette, a voice teacher, have made together.
Even before they married, Knappenberger had begun to take mission trips to the Ana Gonzaga Methodist Institute, an orphanage in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He arrived the first time just after the Holston (annual) Regional Conference sent some music instruments. So he taught the children how to play the instruments and led them in fundraising concerts.
He and Nannette would do that same work in their trips together. They decided to adopt a child from Brazil. One thing led to another. Eventually they adopted eight Brazilian children, as well has having a “homemade” daughter, Kent’s mother’s term.
Kent and Nannette now lead the music for an ecumenical congregation but are members at Westfield United Methodist and have led music and youth groups there for many years.
Jenniver Bova is one who felt the Knappenberger influence both in school and church. She graduated from Westfield Academy in 2002 where she belonged to three school choirs led by Mr. K, including one that won a highest possible “gold with distinction” rating in New York state school competition.
“Whenever we sang as a group, he would point to a sign hanging in our classroom and confidently say, `We have standards’!” Bova said. “And we knew what he meant. We had the potential to reach a higher level than we had thought, and he taught us how to get there.”
These days, Bova teaches art in a charter school in New Hampshire. She credits Knappenberger as a key reason for her decision to become a teacher and to teach in the style she does. But what she got from him and his wife in church may have been even more important, she said.
Bova began to attend Westfield United Methodist in ninth grade and joined youth music groups led by the Knappenbergers.
“We sang unto the Lord with our voices and rang unto the Lord with hand bells,” Bova said. “This couple invested their time and energy into my life as they do with each person they meet, and I needed that deep down, more than they probably knew. My childhood was broken, and quite often they were the ones to help hold it together.”
This has been quite a stretch for the Knappenberger family. In October, Kent’s brother Lon, a colleague at Westfield Academy, was among the first 105 science and math teachers selected for the New York State Master Teacher Program.
Kent was a finalist for the Grammy when news came of Lon’s award.
“You kind of wondered, is `Kent going to get (the Grammy) too,’ and he did,” Lyston Knappenberger said. “It’s been real exciting. We’re very proud of those guys.”
The Grammy, given by The Recording Academy® and the GRAMMY Foundation®, carries a $10,000 honorarium for Kent and another $10,000 for the school. He spent much of his award taking three of his daughters to Los Angeles for the ceremony. The school’s money will go for sheet music, instruments and a student field trip. They’ll head to New York City in April to see the musical “Newsies.”
Meanwhile, Knappenberger is again balancing music education and farm work, tending the cows, but also horses, a pony, a llama, rabbits and a flock of sheep. From the latter, he and Nannette sheer wool, spin it into yarn and make sweaters.
Their time-management secret is to live in the country.
“We have a television,” the Grammy winner said, “but we don’t get any reception.”
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org