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The music teacher who just won a Grammy says it belongs to her students

Grammy Awards don't only go to the people who produce and perform songs. For just over a decade, they've also been given out to those who teach others how to make music.

The Music Educator Award, presented by the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum, recognizes those who have made a "significant contribution and demonstrate a commitment to music education."

This year it went to Annie Ray, the performing arts department chair and orchestra director at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. She was honored for her efforts to make music accessible to all students, particularly those with disabilities.

Ray got to attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, take selfies with pop stars and bring home both a $10,000 prize and matching grant for her school's music program. But speaking with NPR's Morning Edition, she said she doesn't consider the award to be hers at all.

"This is the students' award," she said. "I'm just lucky enough to have been a part of their journey and their process and to have been taught by them."

Her orchestra teaches students more than just music

Ray created the Crescendo Orchestra for students with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as a parent orchestra that teaches nearly 200 caregivers a year to play the same instrument as their child.

She was inspired in large part by the diversity of the Annandale community, which she says represents over 60 countries, including many refugees and immigrants.

"There's a lot of cultures that might typically clash, and they come together in this very beautiful harmony, for lack of a better word," Ray explained. "And that's really uniquely expressed in the orchestra classroom, where we're just all music-ing together."

Ray says the Crescendo Orchestra, which was born out of the pandemic, doesn't necessarily share the social goals of a program like Best Buddies or the Special Olympics. The focus is on teaching students how to play an instrument, through one-on-one instruction tailored to their needs.

That involves tools like music scarves, egg shakers, rhythm sticks and cardboard instruments, according to a 2022 Washington Post profile of the orchestra. Ray also works with a local charity to give damaged instruments a second life in her classroom.

The orchestra is about much more than just making music, however. Ray says the program gives students a chance to develop their collaboration skills, make mistakes and learn the art of refining something.

"I really push my students to be bold, go outside their comfort zone and realize ... we have to learn how to make bad sounds before we learn how to make good sounds," she said.

And they teach her a lot in return — more in a day, she says, than she could ever teach them.

"They completely changed my educational philosophy and approach of what it truly means to meet a student where they're at and apply that elsewhere," she added. "I believe they have a truly powerful message to share with everyone, and especially with how we look at approaching music education and what that looks like."

Music teachers change lives, says Meryl Streep (among many others)

Ray, who comes from a family of musicians and has played harp since the age of five, knows firsthand the impact that a great teacher can make on their students.

"That's why I am where I am, is because a teacher changed my life and made me want to be a music educator," she said.

And she learned at the Grammys — where she met the likes of Taylor Swift and Oprah — that many of the most famous performers in the world feel the same.

"I got to speak with Meryl Streep for a moment, and she told me that a music educator changed her life," Ray said. "And that was really touching, because if I could change and just touch one student's life, I've done what I wanted to do."

Ray was honored at the Recording Academy's merit award ceremony on Saturday and attended the Grammys on Sunday. She says many of the musicians she met at the Grammys were excited to offer congratulations — and potentially even collaborate.

Eilish offered to make a video for her students, while SZA crashed her backstage interview to pass a message to them directly: "Stay in school and listen to everything she says."

For now, Ray adds, her kids are loving all the selfies she's sent them.

Ray says her warm reception was especially meaningful because not many people understand what exactly music educators do in the classroom or how much their work matters. She says while her administration is supportive, that lack of understanding is one of the biggest challenges facing the profession in general.

Another challenge, of course, is resources. She says her school "desperately" needs new instruments, especially low string instruments like the bass and cello. Ray says she will use some of her grant money to buy more.

"So when I found out that was a part of the equation, which I did not know, it was just overwhelming," she added. "We've been trying to raise money all year for new cellos. And I was like, 'Well, problem solved.'"

Ray also plans to put some of the money towards an ongoing scholarship for students who want to pursue music when they graduate, in any capacity. She knows of several who want to go into music education themselves, which she finds especially rewarding.

"It is a hard profession, but it's one that is truly, deeply personal and gratifying," Ray said. "And there's nothing else like it."

The broadcast interview was produced by Milton Guevara and Paige Waterhouse, and edited by Alice Woelfle.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.