Award recipients often say it’s an honor just to be nominated. That was certainly the case for Department of Music lecturer and director of summer music camps Chris Branam when he found out that several of his students nominated him for the 2021 Grammy Music Educator Award. With nearly 2,000 nominees, Branam thought that filling out the paperwork to accept the nomination would be the last he’d hear of it. He was surprised to learn last week that he has been selected as a quarterfinalist for the award.
The vast majority of the 216 quarterfinalists teach in K-12 schools rather than colleges or universities. “It’s surprising because you don’t think about students at the college level nominating a professor for something like that,” Branam said. “I’m so grateful for the relationships that we’ve built in our class and our ensembles. To me that’s rewarding enough.”
The students who nominated Branam—Sarah Sisk, Jennifer Urbanek and Hannah Jones— are members of the marching band and Branam’s symphonic band, as well as roommates, who learned about the Music Educator Award from an ad on Instagram. They knew right away that they wanted to nominate Branam. “Part of being a good music teacher is establishing connections with students and being that person that they’re not scared to talk to or nervous to go up to,” said Sisk, a junior majoring in animal science. “I think establishing that connection is good because you feel more comfortable to ask questions, and you learn more, and you become a better musician.”
Urbanek, also a junior animal science major, agrees. “[Mr. Branam] tries and succeeds so well with just connecting with everyone, not just students but with staff and other faculty. It’s really impressive just to see that, and every day in class he would always engage and he’d try to make it entertaining…he always made jokes and made it fun for everyone that was involved. And even with his concerts, they’re not just concerts, it’s an experience. It’s so much work that he puts into everything that he does, and it’s really impressive.”
Branam has taught at NC State since 2010 and is a career educator, having taught at every level from elementary school through college. During his tenure as band director at Sanderson High School in 2001, he was named Band Director of the Year by the Central District Bandmaster Association of the NC Music Educators Association. The NC State Symphonic Band, which Branam directs, does not require an audition and has grown into the music department’s third largest ensemble with more than 100 musicians.
“He makes you want to stay involved and stay in music,” said Sisk, who remembers a very different experience with her high school band director, where all of her classmates eventually quit the band. “I was the only person from my [high school] freshman class to become a senior in band. And going from that and then having Mr. Branam and seeing how many people are staying because he makes it fun, and he encourages them to stay in music, and seeing people grow and how much better they’ve gotten, it makes me happy. Especially coming from a high school where nobody wanted to stay.”
Branam understands how important that connection between student and teacher really is. “It’s not about me,” he emphasized. “When you remove yourself and your ego from a barrier between you and the students and let them enjoy who you are and you enjoy who they are and you use music as a connecting factor, it’s amazing the experiences you create. I don’t look at myself as anything special at all. I just go in there and try to connect with my students. And I love what I do.”
The semifinalists will be announced in September. The winner will be flown to Los Angeles to attend the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. Sisk and Urbanek hope to see Branam walking the Grammy red carpet with his wife, Jane.
“For me, I really think that music things in general, that are band related, don’t get enough recognition,” said Sisk. “For somebody who works so hard, and has been a part of the music community so much throughout his life, and all of the different things he’s done to get where he is now, and how dedicated he is, I just think he deserves it so much. And I would love for the whole world, or the United States or whatever, to see him and know what he’s done.”
The Music Educator Award recognizes current educators (kindergarten through college, public and private schools) who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools. A joint partnership and presentation of the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum, the recipient will be recognized during Grammy® Week 2021.