Bruce Weinberger: Changing lives through the magic of music
Nov 19, 2014 04:01PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine
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Bruce Weinberger: Changing lives through the magic of music
by Jeffery Williams
Photos by Dan Minkler
Music hath charms to direct the restless teenage heart.
And with a little help from Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney, music teacher Bruce Weinberger has ignited the melodic magic within teens for 30 years at Sierra High School, nestled in the foothill community of Tollhouse.
The band’s music has been heard resoundingly as far as New York City by the likes of former Yankee pitching star Mariano Rivera.
Earlier this year, Weinberger learned that the Mariano Rivera Foundation has taken notice of his music program and decided to give it support by purchasing new uniforms and instruments.
“Our uniforms are 40 years old and some of the instruments go back to the 1950s,” Weinberger said. “This is surreal. It will infuse our program with greater pride and excitement!”
The compelling question is why a Yankee from New York City would be interested in making a significant investment into the Chieftains of Sierra High School. The simple answer is that one of Weinberger’s former students, Dylan Baize, is the nephew of the president of Rivera’s foundation, Naomi Gandia.
But there’s more to it than that.
“Dylan had just moved into the area and had been struggling in all his classes until he discovered our band program,” Weinberger said.
Baize, a 17-year-old high school senior, said, “Band was like a family. Everyone welcomed me and Mr. Weinberger helped me feel at home. I don’t take well to a lot of teachers, but he was different. He even helped me in other classes.”
After listening to her nephew’s description of Weinberger as a teacher and how the students routinely had to hem up the worn uniforms before marching onto the field, Gandia was inspired and took the story to the foundation.
Rivera and Gandia will present the new uniforms and instruments to the school in November.
“Sierra High is in the same situation as almost all public schools in California; there is not enough money to fully support the arts,” Weinberger said. “Music programs are enormously expensive to run. This gift from the Mariano Rivera Foundation is a terrific blessing.”
Dylan Baize’s story is more the norm than an exception.
Ara Keledjian worked with Weinberger for many years and has always been impressed with the way “he creates a culture of love and acceptance, where all are valued for their own merit.”
“How he is able to make happy, well-adjusted cool kids relate so well with those who aren’t makes no sense,” said Keledjian, principal of Sandy Bluffs Continuation School in Tollhouse. “He is a brilliant man who has saved countless students from being miserable for the rest of their lives.”
Another indicator of Weinberger’s infectious enthusiasm and vision is the community’s strong support for the annual Christmas Concert.
For the past 20 years, the Sierra High Christmas Concert has been one of the most significant community events in the Prather, Tollhouse, Auberry, Shaver Lake, Pine Ridge and Big Creek area. The 450 tickets allotted for both shows always sell out.
“It’s not really a concert. It’s more like a Disneyland ‘Dark Ride,’” Weinberger said. “We totally transform the gym with two stages, professional lighting, a snow machine and decorations on every wall.”
And Weinberger makes sure every single one of his junior high and high school students – from advanced to special needs – has a role to play in an original angle of the Christmas story scripted by students and teacher to create an “unforgettable experience for all.”
There are several annual traditions observed during the concert, Weinberger said. The center aisle is left open for everyone to get up and dance, and the school’s homecoming event is celebrated. Parents donate tons of free refreshments and there is a raffle, as well.
“It’s one of the best things that happens here every year,” said Debbie Baize, Dylan’s mother and a Tollhouse resident. “It adds so much to the Christmas season.”
Searching for the magic
It wasn’t always this way, according to Weinberger. Raised in Los Alamitos and educated at Long Beach State, he started teaching in Southern California but always longed to live in the hills. After he and his wife D’Arcy had their first child, he asked if they could start looking for jobs where the landscape was “pretty.”
They landed in the oak-filled foothills at the base of the Sierras. For the next 10 years, Weinberger taught classes for band, jazz band, orchestra, concert choir and chamber choir, but he always had a nagging feeling that he was “just floating along, not really knowing what I was doing.”
Weinberger determined that he needed “a method to his madness.”
He found it in Disney. He had worked one year at Disneyland dumping trash and “loved every minute of it” because he had undergone an intensive training program where he learned about the culture and heritage of Disney.
He researched the Disney program thoroughly and decided to design his music program after it. That has made the difference.
“Now the program runs itself,” he said.
On the first day of school, students enter to the music of Phantasmic! from the Disneyland show and are directed to read the mission statement, which is painted on the wall just above the pointed finger of a Mickey Mouse sculpture: “Making the audience laugh and cry one person at a time.”
Weinberger focuses students on how they can succeed as a family of band and choir members and as performers. Following the principles of the Disney philosophy, he reinforces the acronym CCARE – communicate, compromise, apologize, recognize and empathize.
“Every morning I remind myself of these principles and practice and model them daily with all my students,” Weinberger said.
Peek in the music building at Sierra High and you will be struck by all the Disney wall murals students have painted during the past 10 years. You will also see many stuffed versions of Mickey and Minnie – gifts from his students.
During the past 20 years, Weinberger has received plenty of feedback that what he’s doing is the right stuff. He has hundreds of letters from former students expressing their gratitude for the music program at Sierra High as well as their appreciation and admiration for Weinberger himself. One former drum major, Patrick Rooney, wrote a novel titled “Trust Fall” about the program. (The book was published in 2012 through iUniverse and is available at Amazon.com.)
Sally Rojas, a 20-year-old nursing student at UCLA, said, “Mr. Weinberger was my favorite teacher. He made music fun. We worked and learned and enjoyed every minute. He created a safe environment that was creative, fun and so different from the rest of school.”
These tributes only serve to uplift, inspire and energize an already enthusiastic teacher who thinks outside the boundaries of musical charts and scales.
Saying NO to competition
A staple of high school music programs is attending competitions with the goal of bringing home trophies to proudly display in cases.
Weinberger will not hear of it. Twenty-seven years ago, while attending a competition, his students asked why they had to keep trying to compete against the “big school bands” with limited success.
“That day, experience started us on a new direction,” Weinberger said.
At a competition the next year, they performed what the band called “The Funny Field Show” filled with unconventional music, dancing, skits, singing and the breaking of an instrument.
“All the judges blasted us. They said we didn’t belong in the competition,” Weinberger recalled. “One lone judge thought it was fabulous.”
That was enough encouragement for Weinberger, so his bands continued to prepare and present their “Funny Field Show” at the Visalia Band Tournament every year, which became very popular with not only his students and parents but also the parents and students of the other schools. Now the Sierra High Marching Band performs their show at the end of the competition “just to entertain.”
“We received a made-up trophy from another school for being the Fun Lovingest,” said Weinberger with a wry grin, adding that the administration is onboard with his vision.
To fulfill their mission of making people laugh and cry, the Sierra High bands and choirs perform at convalescent hospitals and senior citizens centers. They do caroling during the Christmas season. And the color guard is made up entirely of students’ parents.
“The school and community continually support the music. I feel extremely blessed,” Weinberger said.
Weinberger and his wife D’Arcy are like a musical tag team that touches the lives of hundreds of students every year. D’Arcy teaches music at Foothill Elementary. The Weinbergers introduce all genres of music to their students, starting with the classical masters all the way to pop.
“He’s such a good teacher and the kids are so fond of him. I’ve known several families whose kids have attended his classes. They look forward to band every year,” Debbie Baize said. “One of my nieces can now play three instruments very well.
During the summers, Weinberger enjoys working on his five-acre property and traveling to various locales. For one week in the summer, his wife plays clarinet with the Baltimore Academy Orchestra, so trips to the East Coast are common during that time. The Weinbergers have two grown children, Ben and Arielle, and three grandchildren.
Summer is a time to recharge his batteries because when the school year starts, he faces the challenge of teaching eight classes of choir and band at both the high school and junior high.
But when summer is over, Weinberger is ready every day to meet his students, living by the maxim: “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
This year’s Sierra High Christmas concerts are Friday, Dec. 12, and Saturday, Dec. 13, at 7:30 both evenings. Tickets are $8 for patrons ages 13 and older and $5 for children ages 12 and under. Tickets must be purchased in advance. To buy tickets, contact Bruce Weinberger at (559) 855-8311 ext. 229.
Jeffery Williams has been a high school English teacher for 27 years. He is also a freelance writer and the award-winning author of the novel “Pirate Spirit.”