Bringing violins, oboes, flutes, even tubas to the jazz ensemble at Laguna Beach High School has more than one person amped.
Roger Shew, a part-time music teacher for the past 10 years at the high school as well as Thurston Middle School, recently received a statewide award for innovation in the classroom, the California All-Star Teachers award from StudentsFirst, a grassroots movement to improve education organized in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools.
Shew takes students playing traditional orchestral instruments and turns them on to the world of jazz music. “They want to be there and they’re talented, they’re hardworking,” said Shew. “They should be included because they’re great musicians.”
And that’s why two of his former students nominated him for the honor. “It’s very humbling,” Shew added. “I really enjoyed getting the award. I’m very glad my students like me.”
Shew was selected not only because of his creative approach, but also because he supports his students in their efforts to refine their abilities, according to Jessica Ng, a spokesperson for StudentsFirst, which is based in Sacramento and active in 18 states.
“Based on the strong nominations we received for Mr. Shew,” said Ng, “it’s clear he is a very passionate musician and teacher who has made a tremendous, lasting impact on his students. Teachers like Mr. Shew are working hard each and every day to help their students strive and succeed in school and beyond, and we’re glad to honor their dedication and contributions.”
After finding out about the award on Facebook, Margaux Reckard, a 2009 LBHS grad who studied trumpet with Shew, was one of the two students who nominated him. He was a teacher, she said, who was genuinely interested in his students’ well-being.
“The fact that he knew about all of the activities that his students were involved in, which subjects they liked and what their families were like and if they took music lessons demonstrated to me that he was invested in his students and invested in their growth,” said Reckard, who is working this summer as a leader in the Land-Sea freshman orientation program in the Adirondacks for her alma mater, Michigan’s Kalamazoo College. “He was not interested in pounding information into us or making a super structured ensemble but, instead, was more interested in fostering one that was musically open and to challenge ourselves in that creativity, which is part of jazz.”
The other student nominator, Jhani Randhawa, noted Shew’s enthusiastic ability to expose his students “to an eclectic and international jazz scene and challenge them with traditionally difficult pieces and standards.”
Out of 29 selected throughout the state, Shew was one of only two teachers to receive the
California All-Star Teachers award in Orange County. Shew works two days in Laguna and also teaches at Fullerton College and Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.
Inspired by his brother, Shew was playing electric bass guitar in garage bands when his high school band director gave him an upright bass to take home for the summer. “I really loved it,” he said, noting that, although the two instruments are technically different, they serve the same role. “As soon as I got into the upright, I started getting into classical music and different styles that are only available to the upright.”
And the love affair ensued. “There’s just so much out there, it’s a non-ending journey, and I love that,” he continued. “It’s frustrating, too, but I love the fact that I’m never done. It’s not like five-o-clock happens and I go home and I don’t do music anymore. It’s part of me and it’s part of my career in life. That’s my artistic source, that’s my artistic voice. I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do with my life so I did it.”
After hours, Shew plays in a jazz band called Bug. “It’s modern and improvised,” he said. “For me, it’s just being in a constant state of learning. I’m always listening to recordings, I’m always practicing, I’m always trying to get better and meeting new musicians who help me on the path.” Shew said he doesn’t know how the name came about. “It worked for The Beatles. It works for us,” he said.
Shew and his wife Jamie, who heads the vocal jazz program at Fullerton College, have also played with Laguna Beach Live. Cindy Prewitt, president of Laguna Beach Live, said the Shews were a perfect fit for the concerts at Hotel Laguna, talented, straight-ahead as well gypsy-versatile jazz artists. Prewitt said she’s also worked with Shew as a teacher, bringing in world-class talent during Laguna Beach Live’s annual Music Festival to conduct master classes for his high school students.
One of those talents was David Benoit, renowned jazz pianist popularly known for his “Peanuts Song” in Charles Shultz’s cartoon specials, jammed with Shew’s class in-between Music Festival performances. “He (Shew) loved that all of his jazz students could put that on their resume, that they played with one of the jazz greats,” said Prewitt.