Bringing in sounds, memories of past lessons
Dec. 15, 2004
Stephanie Siegel
Staff Writer

Teacher, students perform reunion concert at Walter Johnson High

Some say those who can do; those who can't teach. Ron Kearns can -- and does. But he also teaches.

Kearns, the instrumental music teacher at Walter Johnson High School, as well as a professional jazz musician, has been doing and teaching for 30 years.

This weekend, Kearns, 52, a Columbia resident, will join former students who have gone on to successful music careers for a reunion concert celebrating his three decades of teaching.

"Every 10 years I have a reunion band so I can check up on my kids and keep up with what they're doing," he said. "Some of them have gone on to be international jazz musicians."

Kearns started teaching in 1975 at Forest Park High School in Baltimore.

He moved on to a citywide music program at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, what he called a precursor to the Baltimore School for the Arts in 1979.

When he came to Montgomery County he started at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring in 1985 and about 10 years ago came to Walter Johnson.

Some of the musicians who will join Kearns on Sunday go as far back as Frederick Douglass, he said.

Kearns said he maintained both teaching and music as full-time jobs because he felt he couldn't have one without the other.

"People say those who can do, those who can't teach," he said. "My philosophy is if you do that, what are offering the kids? In order to try to be the best teacher I can be, I have to try to be the best musician I can be."

His students respect that.

"He's one of the best teachers I've ever had for music," said Stephen Freidman, a sophomore at Walter Johnson in the jazz band. "His history as a musician and as a teacher shows that he really knows what he's talking about."

Kearns said his own excitement for music rubs off on his students.

"They see the energy and the love that I have," he said. "It's contagious."

Walter Johnson acting Principal Christopher Garran has worked with Kearns for years, first as a fellow teacher and now as a principal. He said Kearns brings something special to the school.

"Students see Ron's passion and his own creative gift for music," he said.

"He models a commitment and a professionalism that inspires our young people to want to become better students and better musicians. We are fortunate to have a musician and a teacher of his caliber on our faculty."

Over the past 30 years, Kearns said he hasn't seen too many changes in his students' enthusiasm for music.

"As far as I'm concerned, nothing has changed," he said. "The look in their eyes of wonderment, it's exactly the same."

He said today, jazz music is much more accessible than it was for his students 30 years ago.

Now high school students can find jazz ensembles at bookstores or on the Internet.

"Thirty years ago, my kids in Baltimore had to kind of sneak in the back of the club to hear the musicians," he said.

Although popular music continues to change, Kearns said his students keep an interest in both contemporary music and the music they study in his class.

"Jazz requires every person to develop their own voice and their own style," he said. "The kids with the higher level thinking skills really enjoy jazz."

Kearns instructs the orchestra, three bands and the jazz ensemble at Walter Johnson and squeezes his own personal practice time in between classes.

The saxophone is his primary instrument, but he can play just about everything.

"As a conductor, I had to become proficient on every orchestral instrument," he said.

Over the span of his career, Kearns said he learned a few things himself.

"I've discovered that kids learn a lot by being able to ask questions of the professionals," he said.

He invites former students who have gone on to be professional musicians to come to his classes and play with his students.

On Friday, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, who has performed at the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center in New York, came in to talk with students about the expectations and responsibilities of professional musicians.

"It's really good experience to have people come in and show you what you can do," said Kristina Gaddy, a senior. "And it's interesting to get to see what they do."

Kearns also runs a jazz summer camp.

He teaches his kids "fun through excellence."

"When kids get a chance to perform good literature and in front of an audience that expects them to be good, they live up to it," he said. "Nobody wants to look bad."

Last week, during a jazz band class, Kearns led the students through songs they would perform the next day in the Montgomery County Public Schools Jazz Big Band Festival, pointing out where songs sounded weak and parts that needed more work.

"Practice is the roughest thing a musician has to go through," Kearns said. "It's very introspective and you have to look at what you can't do and your mistakes, but then [students] see how they get better and success becomes contagious."

On Sunday, former students who have taken Kearns' lessons to heart will come back to be led by him once more.

The concert will feature a combo performance featuring former students and a big band.

It makes Kearns proud to see how far some of his students have gone.

"Bruce Williams (who has played with Roy Hargrove and the Duke Ellington Orchestra) had a lot of talent but he was reluctant to play any solos for anyone," Kearns recalled. "One night at a performance at Blues Alley, Bruce decided he was going to play a solo and he blew me away."

Williams will be there on Sunday, along with another past student, Allison Miller, who has performed with Rachel Z and Natalie Merchant.

"Allison Miller had that fire all along," Kearns said.

On a recent episode of the David Letterman show, he saw her playing drums with Natalie Merchant.

"This little girl who was no longer a little girl was my student," he said.