By Reed Strength
When Deanna Bell, music education teacher at Vestavia Hills Elementary East, saw an unopened email from the Grammys in her inbox, she assumed at first it was a T-shirt ad. When she opened it and read it, she was even more puzzled.
According to the email, the Grammys had received a nomination packet entering her into the 2019 Grammy Music Educator Award. A few weeks later, Bell got a follow-up email with an even bigger surprise: she had been named a quarter-finalist for the award. Currently, Bell is only one of two teachers in Alabama chosen to be among the 188 quarterfinalists.
“It took me three times to read it before I realized that I was really a finalist,” said Bell.
Each year, the organization uses this award to honor the work of music education teachers across the nation.
“For every performer who makes it to the Grammy stage, there was a teacher who played a critical role in getting them there,” states the award’s webpage.
Out of nearly 2,800 nominations,10 finalists ultimately will be chosen. The organization will then choose one overall winner, who will be flown to Los Angeles and honored during Grammy week with a $10,000 honorarium.
Joy Smith, Bell’s close friend and a fellow music teacher at Huffman Academy in Birmingham, secretly gathered nomination materials and entered her for the award.
A glance at Bell’s resume adds credence to Smith’s motivations. Two years ago, Bell recieved both the Vestavia City Schools Teacher of the Year and Elementary Teacher of the Year Awards for 2016-2017. Each spring, she hosts a free professional development course with grant funding to provide local music teachers with classroom resources.
Outside of the elementary school classroom, Bell recently was appointed as the first female conductor of the Birmingham Wind Ensemble. She also teaches music education courses as an adjunct professor at UAB and is a member of several state music education boards and associations.
She attributes her passion and drive to her childhood. Bell grew up on a farm in Blount County, with her mother, Sharon Woodard, a teacher, and father, Robert Woodard, a former football coach at Oneonta and Cleveland high schools.
While Bell claims her musical talents stem from her mother and aunt, she credits the ironclad support and motivational speeches her father gave to her and his players for her drive to succeed.
Bell has taught music education at Vestavia Hills Elementary East for seven years, but she collectively has about 25 years of education experience, having worked in five schools in three states.
There are 43 classes of children at Vestavia Hills Elementary East who come to Bell’s music classroom every week. Kindergarten and first-graders receive 30 minutes of music class, while second- and third-graders get 10 more minutes each week.
Rather than simply teach the kids to sing and play with bells and rhythm sticks, Bell makes some unconventional but fresh lesson plans. “I try to go to school and have some fun every day,” said Bell.
Part of her strategy to do so is to consistently incorporate new music tools and methods into her curriculum. One of her more innovative tools in recent years are AudioCubes, programmable Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) controllers developed by California-based music tech company Percussa.
Each AudioCube features programmable colors and sounds that can be layered atop one another via bluetooth sensing. With 12 cubes in all, Bell’s students can quickly create their own mini-DJ sets, complete with a multicolored light show. These mind-bending instruments are not only weird fun, but they also help students combine STEM concepts with the artistic expression of musical composition.
“It’s coding, it’s programming a light show, it’s putting sound loops together. This is as STEM as it gets,” said Bell. “I wanted whatever my technology was to be different. Something they probably didn’t have at home.”
Outside of the cubes, each of Bell’s students begins learning guitar starting in kindergarten. Gradually, their skills increase with each grade level, ending in third grade, when the kids form their own bands and play original songs, which Bell records for their parents.
Each of the four grade levels at Vestavia Hills Elementary East performs at least one concert each year, with every child playing an instrument for up to 10 to 12 songs.
These performances aren’t just limited to the school gymnasium. Their venues include the annual Vestavia Hills tree lighting ceremony, local retirement homes, building openings and a few community service projects.
Out of the popular artists of the day, Bell said she draws a lot of inspiration from Adele, the multiplatinum singer-songwriter of “Hello” and “Someone Like You” fame.
“The thing about those songs is that each of them tells a story and is about a personal event or connection to something that happened in her life,” said Bell. “That’s something I’ve got to teach my kids. Not every song is going to be a happy song.”
In the future, regardless of the Grammy win or not, Bell hopes to leave her mark on not only her students, but the college interns she mentors each semester.
“I’m really hoping I’m making a difference with the next generation of music teachers by teaching them what I know,” said Bell.
“She is so good to all of her interns, whether it’s prepping us for interviews for jobs, or helping you figure out what you need to get for your classroom. Or, for myself, acting as your biggest supporter,” said Katie Boyd, one of Bell’s former interns.
In September, the Grammys will announce the semifinalists for the Music Education Award, followed by the full announcement of the finalists next year. Along the way, Bell’s fellow educators at Vestavia Hills Elementary East are rooting for her all the way.
“I’ve taught across from her now for six years, so just the joy, and the happiness and the sounds that come out of the music room make my heart sing,” said Mary Mason, a second-grade teacher at Vestavia Hills Elementary East. “So, Justin Timberlake, Adele, watch out. Because here comes Deanna Bell. She’s our rockstar.”