I recently had the opportunity to interview teacher Brenton Johnson, or “Music Johnson” as he is known to the scholars of Challenge Prep. Johnson shared his love of teaching, music, and the education he is passing on to future generations of children.
Messer: Why did you decide to teach music?
Johnson: I’ve been a professional musician for over 20 years, performing with many artists in places from California to Cameroon, but I find teaching music offers a more rewarding feeling from performance. Being able to watch students grow and develop every day, to see that joy for learning is great. And not every student has that joy immediately, but it is so good to walk with the children throughout the day. I love working with these young artists from morning time when they might come in hungry or tired all the way to the end of the day when they may be more energized by what they are learning.
Messer: Name one artist you really enjoyed working with before teaching.
Johnson: I loved performing with Yolanda Adams. We are both from Houston, Texas, and I got a chance to work with her at a particular event and then continued working with her on tour.
Messer: You have a “mobile” classroom at Challenge Prep. Tell me how that works.
Johnson: Yes, I get to push into the classrooms with my keyboard and laptop to teach music. We use the smartboards and projectors to achieve a very interactive lesson since we really want to focus on using technology. The scholars do take lyrics home, but it’s 2016 and we want them to use current tools. For instance, I recently assigned music homework to our 2nd and 3rd graders, and they had to go to YouTube to listen to and practice the songs they are working on.
Messer: The Challenge Prep scholars recently performed at the New York City DOE Back to School event. What was that like for them?
Johnson: We were called by the Chancellor to represent the school which was such an honor. The students were excited since many of them had never been to an official government building, and we explained that the Tweed Courthouse is a special one since it is where the Chancellor’s office is and many of our leaders in education work there.
We performed two numbers, “Summertime” by Gershwin from the musical Porgy and Bess, and “Man in the Mirror” made famous by Michael Jackson, and also the school song. That was a last minute request, but the students were ready. We are always in a “performance mode,” ready to perform.
Messer: There is a rich history of music here since Challenge Prep opened its doors.
Johnson: Yes, we have a reputation of children sing beyond their age range, so they sing more advanced material than people expect. We are working on expanding what our children have done.
Messer: Can you give us a preview of what is coming up musically for the scholars?
Johnson: We have Kindergarten and 1st grade assemblies at the end of November. Then of course the Winter Show is coming up on December 16th that includes all grades. This year’s show is focused on a multicultural program incorporating Christian, Jewish, Muslim brothers and sisters—we want to be inclusive. We want any student participating in our show to feel like they can celebrate where they are from.
Messer: What are your favorite genres of music to listen to or play?
Johnson: I love to listen to just about anything, but my favorite is vocal jazz—Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall. I love gospel, R & B, pop—especially Motown. If it is good music no matter the genre, I know I will enjoy playing it. I love the feeling of playing good music.
Messer: What is the most important thing you want to impart to your students?
Johnson: At Challenge Prep, we know how much it makes a difference for us to encourage students and say, “you can do this.” I want my students to know that no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you are capable and able to achieve any dream as long as you put your mind to it, work hard and enjoy what you do.
-Kim Messer, Executive Communications Director