Music Ed. Alumnus hits all the Right Notes

Published: April 15, 2015 | Read Time: 3 minutes

If you were to walk into the Cedar High School band room at 9 a.m. on any given day, you would find Steve Shirts plunking out tunes on an electric piano, surrounded by students voicing new ideas, the music shifting as Shirts, their band teacher, processes each request. Somewhere in the seemingly informal jam session, the perfect sound for an upcoming concert emerges from the collaboration, and the students leave class that day with an ongoing discussion of their ideas that carries out into the crowded hallway. Class is dismissed, but the conversation is far from over.

As to their teacher, Mr. Shirts, fist-pounds students he passes in the halls, a steady stream of student greetings that sound more like star-struck fans echo back. It is clear these students not only like but also look up to their band teacher—one of many factors that earned Shirts the Outstanding High School Educator award from the Utah Music Educators Association. The award is given to just one teacher across Utah annually, and the Southern Utah University music alumnus who has taught at Cedar High for the past 28 years is Utah's very best.

While his students enroll in Shirts’ classes to hone their craft, they get much more than that, according to Kaylen McGuire, a Cedar High junior who explains, “[Mr. Shirts] is a great band teacher, but he also teaches great life experiences.”

For Shirts, the music is the easy part, but the less tangible goals he has set for his classroom environment—instilling responsibility and perseverance—are the lessons he hopes they’ll carry with them the longest. Such efforts to ensure his students learn much more than chords and cadence are carrying forward similar mentorship Shirts said he received as a music student to SUU professor, Dennis Bacon.

"Professor Bacon brought these amazing real world scenarios into the classroom that taught me as much about myself as they did about my craft," recalls the 1987 music education graduate who later returned to his alma mater to earn a graduate degree in education in 1999. Shirts now tries to emulate Bacon’s teaching style in his own classroom.

“There are a lot of life skills that can be learned in the band room, and if we learn a little music along the way, then it’s an added bonus,” explains Shirts, who sees music as the doorway to his students’ minds and hearts.

After nearly three decades teaching high school music classes, Shirts says he still loves what he does. And it shows.

“[Shirts] has created this incredibly elite program, with highest ratings in 3A level schools for most of the 28 years he’s been the band teacher,” touts his proud boss, Cedar High Principal John Dodds.

With Shirts at the rostrum, the Cedar High Band has qualified for state band competition 28 years in a row, and the jazz band has received outstanding section and solo awards 28 years in a row.

“Plus, the kids love him, and they’re excited to go to class,” notes Dodds. “Mr. Shirts just relates to every kid ever, and he knows how to keep everyone involved.”

Indicative of the very reason his students love him, however, Shirts is quick to champion those around him. “Without these great students, I would just be a normal band teacher. It’s not about me; they never get enough credit. At the end of the day, they are the ones that have to blow through the horn. Ultimately, they are the ones that have to play.” 

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