Appalachian State alumnus wins Music Educator of the Year


Photo courtesy of Grammy in the Schools

Celia Calhoun

When Phillip Riggs graduated from Appalachian State University in 1988, he had no idea that he would be the recipient of a Grammy award. This year, however, Riggs was selected among 4,500 nominees to receive the Music Educator Award.

The Music Educator Award was created by the Grammy Foundation three years ago, and allows anyone to nominate their favorite music educator in public or private schools across the country. The award recognizes teachers who have had a positive impact on their students and have shown them the different opportunities that music can give them. It is presented by the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation each year at the televised Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California.

During the selection process, a survey was sent to all of the nominees and based on the their responses, 250 quarterfinalists were chosen. The quarterfinalists submitted videos talking about various aspects of teaching, then a panel narrowed it down to 25 people who were reviewed by a “blue ribbon” panel. These 25 were narrowed down to 10 finalists and then Riggs was chosen. Sarah Stafford, one of Riggs’ former students, nominated Riggs for the “Music Educator Award.” Stafford followed in his footsteps and became a band director like Riggs.

After Riggs obtained his bachelor’s degree in music education, he went on to teach in North Carolina for the 27 years. He is a currently a music teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, located in Durham, North Carolina, and he has taught band, choir, jazz, music theory and composition, world music, American popular music and classical piano and guitar. His favorite part about teaching is getting to know the students and watching them grow as musicians.

“It is always exciting to see them experience that first musical goosebumps moment,” Riggs said.

Riggs and his wife arrived in Los Angeles the week leading up to the Grammy Awards, where he attended media related events and he was able to talk about the importance of music education in schools.

“As a teacher, I gravitated to the students,” Riggs said. “The Grammy Jazz Camp Band and Vocal Jazz Group were outstanding.”

Riggs attended the Grammys on Feb. 16 and said that one of his favorite parts was sitting next to Gary Sinise, also known as Lieutenant Dan from the film “Forrest Gump,” and his son. He and his wife thanked Sinise for recognizing those who served in the armed forces.

“The televised event was surreal,” Riggs said. “We were sitting on the fourth row surrounded by Pentatonix, Beck, Chris Stapleton, John Legend and Ryan Seacrest, to name a few.”

Noah Altman, freshman exercise science major, was one of Riggs’ teaching assistants for jazz band. As one of his TA’s, Altman helped set up and put away chairs and stands before and after class. He also helped plan events for the band and assisted Riggs in picking music the band would perform and try.

“He’s definitely the most relaxed teacher I’ve ever met,” Altman said. “He was able to concisely communicate his teaching in a very cool way. He’s very deserving of the award. I couldn’t think of any other music teacher I’ve had that would be more deserving of a music educator award.”

Alia Dahlan, a freshman marketing and finance major at NCSSM, said that NCSSM is a special community and with only 600 students, the bond between the teachers and students is phenomenal. When Dahlan was a junior, she realized that NCSSM did not have a color guard or winter guard program. She really wanted to start one there, and Riggs agreed to be her sponsor for the club.

“He really helped us a lot,” Dahlan said. “He had really good ideas about when we should perform and how we should try and get the word out.”

Since NCSSM is such a small school, Dahlan knew just about everyone that took one of Riggs’ classes.

“Everyone loved him,” Dahlan said. “Everyone came to a consensus that he’s a really amazing teacher, as with most of the other teachers at NCSSM.”

Dahlan liked how passionate Riggs was about helping students. He would always offer to do whatever she needed. Dahlan also admired how he balances his time well amongst all of his commitments.

“He is just the most caring person,” Dahlan said. “Whenever I asked him for help, he would be more than willing to do it.”

Dahlan remembers that during one of NCSSM’s breaks, she was going to visit some of her old high school friends at a band competition. She was surprised when she saw Riggs at the competition assisting as a judge.

“He really helps out not just NCSSM, but the whole state in terms of all of their band programs,” Dahlan said.

Riggs said he enjoys teaching music because it speaks to everyone. He believes that it allows kids to experience life in a better way than they had before. Being able to play an instrument or sing also contributes to this better life that Riggs believes comes from music.

“Music is my life,” Riggs said. “Although I leave school each evening, I never leave work. I would say I’ve worked many 18 hour days as a music teacher, but I’ve loved doing it.”

Riggs said he believes that it is true that teaching music can help to teach content about other subjects, but he also thinks that music is important on its own.

“We must teach for music’s sake,” Riggs said.

Story by: Celia Calhoun, A&E Reporter