Every year, Music & Arts highlights the work of an outstanding music educator with the Music & Arts Music Educator of the Year Award. We’re proud to announce that Karen Seamans, Band Director of Gillette Rd. Middle School and Cicero-North Syracuse High School in Cicero, New York, is the 2019 recipient. Karen’s remarkable enthusiasm and commitment to enriching her student’s lives through music caught our attention. We traveled to New York to personally meet with Karen and learn more about her life and teaching philosophy.
It’s incredible to meet you! Why don’t we start off with you introducing yourself?
My name is Karen Seamans, and I am a music teacher at Gillette Road Middle School and the director of the CNS High School Marching Band and Junior Winterguard.
You have a unique story in the sense that you grew up in the area, you’ve taught here for 22 years. What made you want to start your career here?
Yeah, I’ve always been, I guess I’m a hometown girl. And the music program here in Cicero was a huge part of my life. I actually went to this middle school, and to CNS High School where I direct the marching band. I decided to go to college at Syracuse University, so I was in the area. My family’s all mainly still here, so coming home was nice. It was a comfortable place to be, and I’m really invested in the program, having been a member myself.
What other educators may have influenced you to pursue music?
I think that growing up, the marching band was a huge part of my life because not only was I a part of it, but by older siblings were. And my siblings, the next oldest after me, is 10 years older than I am, so I was four and five years old running around marching band practice. My sisters were in color guard, so I grew up around the activity. My father always played sax around the house just for fun as a hobby, and he used to prop me up from the time I can remember and have me play.
It was just kind of a natural progression to go into the band program when I got the opportunity in fourth grade and it’s just been a huge part of my life since then. I’ve had some wonderful teachers here at Gillette; Paul de Pastino was one of my clarinet teachers and he played an integral role in really making me into a good musician. And I went on and I had Holly Bossert, who taught me in junior high and taught me in elementary school. She actually referred me to my private lesson teacher, so they all really pushed me to be a better musician.
When did you realize that you wanted to teach music?
I think I’m a teacher at heart. Ever since I was young, I was the kid who wanted to correct the papers for the teachers. And even in Pop Warner’s, when I was in the higher teams, I would go down and help the younger kids. So I think I’ve always been a teacher, and since music was such a huge part of my life, it just seemed like the natural thing to teach music.
I did all of my classes, and an internship to be a principal, also because I do love education. But when I was doing my internship I missed all the creative arts and the performance part of it.
You’ve worn many different hats with Cicero and the Syracuse high school marching band. Can you talk about what you did to rebuild that program?
When I graduated from high school I was actually the drum major at CNS, and I graduated. And the rule at that time was you had to be out of the program for one year before you could come back and instruct. So I did my one year out of the program, then came back the following summer and started helping during the summers while I was in college, and did just anything from drill tech to color guard to woodwind instruction. And then once I was out of college, I started working with the band full time. And like you said, I’ve kind of worn many hats. I’ve been the woodwind instructor, I’ve been the color guard caption head, I’ve been the assistant director. And then when the director retired I put in for the director position.
You were selected to perform in the Macy’s Day Parade and went on to win big titles. How’d that feel for you in the community?
It was great. The Macy’s Parade was something I had always wanted to do. And the director at the time always said, “Well you have to put in for it two years ahead of time.” And I’m like, yeah, and so it’s always still two years away. So that was one thing that was definitely on my bucket list. And it was the coldest Macy’s Parade on record. Just so everyone knows. We made t-shirts when we got back.
I think it’s important because everyone can relate to that. You don’t have to be a musician. There’s a certain group of people that come to our competitions who are people who are involved in the activity with children or have been involved. But the Macy’s Parade is something that can touch everyone in the community. And so that was why I really wanted to do that. And it really was a huge deal. And it’s nice to see now, after having done some of these things, some of my younger kids at the middle school already talking about, “I can’t wait to be in marching band. I can’t wait to be in marching band.” So I think things like that that can really connect us with the community, the parades and things that we do in the community are important for our program.
Any cool stories from behind the scenes of that Macy’s Parade?
Well, I don’t know if a lot of people know what it’s like the day of the parade, but you get on a bus and you go and you practice on that star at three in the morning. And they have lights and cameras and everything there. You have one or two shots to get there and hit your place on the star and do everything. That’s when they check their shots and things like that. So we do that at 3:00, 3:30 in the morning. Then the whole band goes to a breakfast buffet and eats breakfast, and then we get on a bus and we go out and we line up right outside central park at 7:00 in the morning. The parade doesn’t start until 9:00.
It was freezing. We were jumping up and down, running in place, doing anything we could to try to stay warm. We were huddled together. And right where we line up, we were on the sidewalk and the street is all of the floats. So all the cool floats are there. And then right about five, 10 minutes before the parade starts, all the celebrities start coming out to get on the float, because they certainly do not line up two hours in advance.
One of the coolest things for my kids was the float that we were closest to had the group Pentatonix on it, and they were actually filming and taking pictures and posting on their Instagram. And so there’s a picture of the CNS marching band on Pentatonix’s Instagram because they took our picture out there. So the kids thought that was pretty cool, and they got to see a few other famous people too while they were out there.
How has your teaching philosophy evolved over the 22 years you’ve been an educator?
I think that I’ve always been student centered, child centered, but I think that the longer I teach, the more I’m finding kids have needs outside of the subject that I’m teaching, whether they be emotional needs, physical needs. So I think that what’s evolved about my teaching is finding strategies and finding ways to meet those needs, and also trying to instill in the kids the bigger picture beyond just practice practicing on a football field for marching band or sitting on a stage and reading music in concert band. I really try to promote life skills with the kids that they’re going to be able to use no matter what they go on to do.
What do you feel has been the biggest struggle that you’ve had as a music educator, and how have you overcome that?
I think every music educator has the struggle of just trying to prove their worth in the education system. We get put on the back burner a lot, or we get the extra time, if there’s extra time we can do that. So I think that’s always been and continues to be the big struggle for music is making sure that we’re a integral part of the day and a valued part of the day. Because this is very valuable for the kids in so many ways beyond just learning to play their instrument or learning to sing. They’re making connections with other kids, they’re part of a group, a team. They have accountability that. And they’ve shown that that music study helps kids brains grow in so many different ways. So I think the biggest struggle for any music educator is just kind of proving their worth in the the education system as a whole.
If you were to give a new music teacher one piece of advice on how to be successful, what would it be?
Get to know your kids. I think that when you make connections with your kids and you know your kids and you love what you do, I think that’s contagious. And I think that that’s one thing that my kids can tell you that they know that I’m invested in our program, they know that I love what I do, and I think that that enthusiasm can be contagious.
What is your most rewarding teaching experience so far?
Well in general, my most rewarding teaching experience has been rebuilding the marching band. When I first took over, there were about 76 kids in the band, and in six years, we’ve doubled in size to 155. We won two state championships in the LS2 class, and were promoted back up to the national class in our first year. In that class, we came in second, which normally when a band gets promoted, they end up in the bottom half of the class. We’ve done obviously the Macy’s parade, the TaxSlayer Bowl; they won every award they could at the TaxSlayer Bowl. And so for me, one of the things that gives me the most pride is having alumni that I marched with, or even farther back, say how proud they are to see the band and how good they’ve gotten and how much they’ve grown.
Because this program has kind of gone through cycles. And so there’s kind of a split. At one time it was two separate high schools. It was Cicero and North Syracuse, and they each had bands, they competed against each other.
When they combined, that was kind of a big deal. And so they have kind of the old North Stars, which I am a part of, that had one staff. Then the newer ones, which was the director I worked under. And now I’m kind of the third phase that is hoping to kind of bring all of that together. Because my sisters were actually in the Cicero band, so I have a little piece in all of that. And so I’m really trying to bring alumni behind the band again, and really get that support.
Your Music & Arts educational representative, David Kuhns, was a strong supporter of your award. What role does he play in making your curriculum?
David has checked in and actually helped me out a lot this year in terms of, there’s been a lot of switch over this year with local music companies and things. He’s helped me a lot with trying to rotate things in and out so that I still have instruments to use, but I’m still getting repairs and things done. And he’s been really helpful when it comes to that.
Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you think you’d like to share about yourself or music in general?
I didn’t talk a lot about my Winterguard, and I absolutely adore my Winterguard kids. And I get to do the youngest guard, the training guard. We have three competitive winter guards here, and I get to do the youngest one, which I absolutely love. And they are just such a source of pride for me because they grow so much from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. Right now we’re right about at the mid-point of the competitive season, and they’ve done really well and they’ve gained so much, and they’re just a great group of kids. And I’m really proud of them and I am really proud to be able to be the director of the trading guard. I know a lot of times people want to be at that highest group and they want to, but I really take a lot of pride in a lot of joy in doing the beginners because I just see so much growth there and so much pride and confidence grow in them.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
I mean, I would like to thank, obviously, my family because they’ve always supported me in everything that I’ve done and they influenced me and made me into the person that I am today. And all of my teachers that I had here in North Syracuse, not even just music teachers, but other teachers I had that just encouraged me to be a teacher. And at Syracuse University, I had some wonderful professors and band directors out there that really, I got to learn a lot more about life outside of Cicero, North Syracuse from them.
Curious about past winners? Check out our Interview with last year’s Winner here.