Above, award-winning teacher Monique Brusca works with Leonor Diaz, left, and Ashley Martinez in their Modern Band class at Columbus Middle School.
Ask what Music Director Monique Brusca has meant to Christopher Columbus Middle School, and Principal Debra Mcintyre-Sciarrino will reel off a list of her accomplishments.
The creation of a Music Conservatory.
Donations of musical instruments from Little Kids Rock, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and the VH1 Save the Music Foundation.
A merit award for Columbus from the National Association of Music Merchants.
“Everything that has happened in and around our music program is her,” Mcintyre-Sciarrino says.
Now – in recognition of her accomplishments and her innovative approach in the classroom – Brusca has been selected as one of only 50 teachers nationwide to receive a Distinguished Music Educator Award from Yale University. She will join the other winners in June at an expenses-paid symposium at Yale, where they will focus on the role of music education in the development of American culture.
That topic dovetails with Brusca’s vision of her ability to influence the lives of her students.
“I’m here to teach them what I know, realizing that it’s going to be part of what makes them into what they are going to become,” Brusca said during a recent interview in the music room of the Canoga Park campus. “I’ve learned that I can’t save every kid, but I can change every kid.”
Music shaped Brusca’s life from an early age. She began playing the piano at age 4, took up the clarinet in elementary school and added the guitar as a teenager at Birmingham High School.
“I never really felt like I fit in, but music made me feel good about myself,” she said. “A lot of my students may feel like don’t feel like they fit in, too. This class is a chance for them to be themselves.”
Brusca has been teaching at Columbus nearly 25 years, after graduating with a music education degree from UCLA. While she loved the work, she was dismayed to discover there weren’t enough instruments for all of the students, and that most of the instruments the school did have were in disrepair.
She became expert at applying for grants and building partnerships that filled her classroom with instruments and created opportunities for her students. In addition to traditional instrumental music, Brusca teaches World Drumming, which focuses on the rhythms of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. In Modern Band, students learn the basics of guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and vocals, and they’re even beginning the process of writing their own songs.
There are classes for beginners and those advanced enough to perform at festivals and other events. Her students also visit music venues and attend live performances, including a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And no matter what their skill level, all of the students perform during twice-yearly concerts for their parents parents and the community.
“She makes us feel excited and hyped to do the work,” said eighth-grader Ashley Martinez, who during her two years in Brusca’s class has learned to play the drums and guitar.
“It’s fun to come to her class,” Ashley added. “You can talk to her about anything.”
Already named by L.A. Unified as a Teacher of the Year for 2016, Brusca said she was absolutely stunned when she received the Yale University award. Nominated by the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, she thought she was applying to attend a symposium at the Ivy League school when she was asked to write an essay about her career.
“I get a great sense of accomplishment watching my students blossom from making the first sounds on their instruments to performing at a concert,” she wrote. “The greatest reward of all is when former students return to visit, and they describe the impact that I have had on their lives. I am proud to know that I have had a profound influence on a soldier in the U.S. armed forces, a middle school music teacher, a paramedic, a radiologist, a banker, a mechanic and many others.”
It was only when Brusca received the letter from Michael Yaffe, associate dean of the Yale School of Music, lauding her efforts to make a difference in the lives of students and families, did Brusca realize that she had been recognized among the best educators in the country.
“I am so honored and humbled to have been selected,” she said. “There are just so many great teachers.”