Moments after instructing his high school orchestra class to play a series of notes at a rapid pace, Justin Steger joins his students in a symphony of laughter.
"I noticed some of you dancing," he says, rocking his body back and forth as he plays air violin. "That little bit of movement can affect your finger accuracy. You should be able to maintain your power stance and contain the dancing."
His students acknowledge his advice with a nod and smile, appreciating the levity of the moment as they continue practicing "Ghosts of Brandenburg," a piece featuring violin, viola, bass and cello.
Steger, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater music major, is student-teaching in the Fort Atkinson school district this semester. He is mentoring high school and middle school students, and teaching orchestra, jazz, percussion and music theory.
Though he is still months away from earning his bachelor's degree, Steger is already an award-winning teacher.
On Oct. 27, Steger will be honored at the State Music Conference in Madison with the 2016 Richard G. Gaarder Award. He is the 17th Warhawk to receive the accolade since its inception in 1989.
Awarded by the Wisconsin Music Educators Association, the Gaarder Award is presented each year to an undergraduate music education major from one of Wisconsin's public or private colleges or universities who has shown exceptional leadership, musical excellence and service to the campus and community.
A saxophonist and clarinetist from New Berlin, Wisconsin, Steger chose UW-Whitewater because "it felt like home."
"Everyone is just as passionate as I am, and this university has a strong reputation for education. I've always known I wanted to be a teacher."
The decision to teach music came with some initial misgivings, however, but mentors like Glenn Hayes, director of bands, helped him rediscover his spark.
"Dr. Hayes instilled the passion for teaching music into me and he kept me going when the times got tough in this major," Steger said.
His saxophone professor, Matthew Sintchak, whom Steger considers his "school father figure," helped him build confidence as a musician.
"He offered me a solo on Duke Ellington's "Nutcracker Suite" with a jazz ensemble my first year here. There are so many other people he could have given it to. He threw me into the deep end."
Steger said he never practiced so many hours as he did on that 32-bar solo.
"I offered the solo to Justin to push his limits, understanding that he would eventually be successful by the concert performance date," said Sintchak, who's been teaching at UW-Whitewater for 15 years. "He was just a freshman, but I knew that he had it in him. The performance turned out well! I think Justin was also pleased, and maybe surprised, that it went so well."
Steger says his professors know how to show tough love that motivates.
"Either you feel good about yourself or bad about yourself after a performance. My mentors focus on the good — good because it went well, or good because you know what you need to work on. There's always another performance."
As a music teacher, Steger is expected to know how to play 12 instruments, including woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings.
He's always encouraging his students to be more creative — to make the music sound more organic. Don't just read off the page. Interpret it. Own it.
And there's nothing more gratifying for a teacher than the moment students finally "get it."
"It feels fantastic. I almost yell that them, ‘That's what I wanted you to do! You've got it! That's the sound professionals can make.'"
Previous Gaarder Award winners from UW-Whitewater:
2014 — Dominic Gischia
2013 — Deanne Carloni
2011 — Abigail Martin
2010 — Abigail Pulvermacher
2009 — Anthony Kading
2008 — Kristen Mary Baus
2006 — Lauren Lubinski
2005 — Katie Plovanich
2004 — Laurel Meuth
2001 — Megan Halinski
2000 — Anne Terneus
1999 — Shari Swiecichowski
1998 — Jennifer Schwingle
1996 — Ann Basten
1990 — John Scheib
1989 — Robin Davis
September 18, 2017
November 21, 2016
November 14, 2016
October 20, 2016
October 17, 2016