CONCORD -- Standing in front of the Concord High Jazz Ensemble wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals, teacher Gary Coartney pulled out his trumpet Tuesday and began playing along with his students to the tune "Tenor Madness."
After challenging students to improvise, he offered some sage advice.
"If you fail, then what happens?" he said. "You strive to succeed! So, let yourselves fail."
Coartney's band programs at Concord High have nurtured hundreds of students who have bonded in a familylike atmosphere that feels like a home away from home. So, when student Mary Beth Mravovich heard that the Grammy Foundation was seeking entries for its first-ever Music Educator Award, she nominated Coartney, who guides the 17-year-old senior when she plays the tuba in the marching band and oboe in the symphonic band.
After sorting through more than 30,000 nominations, the award committee in May named Coartney a quarterfinalist. He and the other 200 or so quarterfinalists could find out Wednesday who¿ made the cut as semifinalists.
In the meantime Coartney and his students are busy doing what they always do: working together to make beautiful music while building skills to navigate through life as responsible young adults who value the arts and give back to their community.
"I view myself as a teacher of life skills rather than as a teacher of music because so many of my kids aren't going on to study music in college," Coartney said Tuesday, during a prep period. "I try to give them an appreciation of a cultural experience they can enjoy that will enrich their lives. But I also try to make sure I'm working on the person, making them strong community members and advocates of the arts, while also continuing to improve musically."
Those are qualities Coartney said he learned the hard way, after a childhood spent moving from one school to another without feeling like he belonged. Now, as he enters his 14th year of teaching in the Mt. Diablo district, Coartney marvels at the roots he has established in Concord, the district and at Concord High.
The realization of how far he had come from his teenage years hit him hard when Mayor Dan Helix presented him with a proclamation naming July 9 Gary Coartney Day in honor of his selection as a Grammy quarterfinalist.
"I had a rough time as a young adult and was really lost," Coartney said. "A lot of people would look at where I was before and really be stunned that I'm here or even alive. I was crying. I think they understood what it meant to me."
Coartney said he tries to guide students away from some of the trouble he had as a teenager.
"My program gives students something to look forward to, if maybe their home life is not the best in the world," he said. "(Here) they have another family."
And his efforts have gone beyond the high school.
Coartney helped establish the Mount Diablo Music Education Foundation after the elementary music programs were eliminated several years ago. He is now working with a group of teachers who plan to ask the school board to reinstate elementary music, since the number of music students in middle and high school will dwindle otherwise, he said.
"He's done a lot for this program and he's a just a great teacher," said Mravovich, the student who nominated her teacher for the Grammy. "He has inspired me by giving us experiences like taking us to a recording studio."
Isabella Cuenco, 16, who plays guitar in the jazz ensemble and clarinet in the marching band, said she has become more responsible by getting up at 5 a.m. for competitions, bringing band equipment on the road, teaching younger students ensemble skills and presiding over the school's student Instrumental Leadership Council.
"It's just a really big family," she said. "Mr. C. kind of takes 150 kids a year as like his own."
She said Coartney has created a culture where younger students look up to older students as role models, who then in turn, pass their work ethic, values and sense of community onto incoming students.
"I feel like everyone's here for a purpose and it's not just to have fun," she said. "It's working together to achieve something great and also to learn skills that will help us in life."
Coartney said he hopes his selection as a quarterfinalist will draw attention to the value of district music programs.
"It's not about me," he said. "If this is one more thing I can do that can make a difference for these kids, that's where I'm at."
Occupation: Instrumental Music Director and Performing Arts Department Chairman at Concord High.
Milestones: Quarterfinalist for the inaugural Grammy Music Educator Award, earning him a proclamation from the mayor of Concord naming July 9 Gary Coartney Day in the city.
Quote: "I look at myself as a teacher of life skills through music rather than as a teacher of music."
More information about Coartney and his music programs is available by calling 925-682-8000 ext. 3330 or at www.chsminutemenmusic.org.
To see videos of Coartney and his students, go to www.contracostatimes.com/education.