She chose music over medicine, and her students are glad she did

Orchestra teacher builds thriving program

Lowell orchestra teacher Wendy Tenney leads a rehearsal of the high school chamber orchestra

Somebody else is going to have to cure cancer.

Wendy Tenney planned to pursue a career in the medical field. Instead, her music is her medicine. For 14 years she has taught sixth-grade orchestra at the middle school, has been orchestra teacher at the high school and, with her husband’s help, leads an after-school Fusion Rock Orchestra.

And maybe, just maybe, she and the thousands of student musicians she has nurtured and exuberantly waved her conductor’s baton in front of have her big brother to thank.

Tenney is one of 10 Michigan educators who were named as 2018-19 Regional Teachers of the Year — a group from which Vicksburg second-grade teacher Laura Chang was named Michigan Teacher of the Year last week. Tenney and her fellow top teachers will constitute the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council, contributing to education discussions throughout the state. She is the only teacher in Kent ISD to be named at the regional level.

Tenney previously was named a finalist for the Michigan chapter of the Strings Teachers Association teacher of the year award. She also was the Kent County Education Association Teacher of the Year in 2011.

One honor she is particularly proud of: “One year, the sixth grade at the middle school voted me biggest role model. That’s what I like to be for them.”

Lowell orchestra teacher Wendy Tenney and Bree McKendrick at Bree’s sixth-grade concert, her first, in 2006. McKendrick now is pursuing a career in middle school music education (courtesy photo)

Inspiring Teachers Matter

Tenney was born and grew up in Moorhead, Minnesota, directly across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. Hers was not a musical family, she said, but her older brother decided in kindergarten that he wanted to take piano lessons.

“So our parents bought a used piano and put us both in lessons,” she recalled. But “I didn’t want to continue … because I didn’t feel challenged.”

She signed up for orchestra in fifth grade, hoping her parents would let her out of piano in exchange for a cello. They did, and she thrived with the string instrument.

“In junior high, people used to tell me I should be a professional cellist when I grew up, and I would say I would never go into music because it would take all the fun out of it.

By the time Tenney was in high school she was playing with the Fargo Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, and with a group called the Apollo Strings that performed at community and corporate events.

Performing was still for fun. She said she was “quite obsessed” with biology, and hoped to go into genetic oncology.

“I was very focused on that,” Tenney recalled. “Every single class I had to do a paper for, I would find a way to write on that topic. And as an ambitious teen, I basically hoped I could help cure cancer through genetic research.”

Wendy Tenney gets a ribbing from fellow music teacher Joe Oprea before a performance of the middle school orchestra at Bushnell Elementary

A New Course

Then Tenney was hired at age 16 to teach at a summer music camp, where she worked alongside people who made music for a living: symphony members, other kinds of professional musicians and college professors.

And she found she enjoyed being a mentor.

“Here I was having a great time with these fifth- and sixth-grade orchestra students, and I began to realize how well I connected with the kids,” she said. “I had so much fun inspiring them and pushing them to do well, and I thought, maybe this is something I’m gifted at.”

Tenney offered private lessons while she was still in high school. At one point she had 10 students at once — young people and adults.

She was performing as well during that time.

“I thought, there’s not many things you can do for a living where people are so moved by what you do when you’re just having fun. I began to think of the reason I said I wouldn’t go into music, and thought, maybe I should do something I find so much fun.”

At Michigan State University, Tenney started out as a performance major “because I believe teachers should be as close to professional level that they can get — at whatever their field is — so they can bring that expertise to students. The higher level of expertise for the teacher, the higher level of teaching they can give to their students.”

After two years she switched her major to music education, and graduated  from MSU in 2003. She did her student teaching in Kentwood Public Schools, and later earned a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Grand Valley State University.

Lowell orchestra teacher Wendy Tenney conducts the middle school orchestra’s performance for Bushnell Elementary students

Students Earn Accolades

Tenney has been at Lowell for 14 years, time enough to become a mother of three: Hannah, 7; Josiah, 5; and Isaac, 19 months. Her older two are already in piano lessons, she said, and she is teaching Josiah to play string bass. Hannah plays a little violin and cello, Tenney said.

Her work at Lowell has paid off in more ways than one.

Lowell’s chamber and symphony orchestras regularly earn top ratings at the MSBOA State Festival. Students have traveled with Blue Lake International, have performed with the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, St. Cecilia Philharmonic, and in 2015, in a side-by-side concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

‘She’s so positive and energetic. And she gives everything to her students.’ —  former student Bree McKendrick

Individual students have participated in All-State Orchestra, Michigan Youth Arts Festival Orchestra, and have earned scholarships of up to $20,000 to play in college orchestras. The Fusion Rock Orchestra received an $83,750 grant from State Farm’s Youth Advisory Board for “Rock Orchestra Advocacy,” which has allowed them to spread the word about what they do. As part of the grant, the program produced a professional music video, “Wrath of Ignatius.”

Many of her students go on to play while in college, she said. One earned a performance degree in bass, another is a composition major. Two students are currently pursuing careers in music education.

But turning out as many professional musicians as possible is not her goal.

“If that’s what they choose to do, then I hope I can equip them to pursue that,” she said. “It’s not a huge field. Just getting into college for that is very difficult.”

Her goal, instead, is “for them to have an experience where they are learning how to work collaboratively and creatively with peers and professionals.”

Mentoring a Future Teacher

Senior Gabrielle McRee, a chamber orchestra violinist, hopes to continue to play after high school. She has been a student of Tenney’s since the sixth grade, and said she has seen her get so into conducting that one of her batons has flown from her hands more than a few times.

“She’s awesome,” Gabrielle said. “She’s a very active teacher. She knows what you’re capable of — she can see that, and pushes you to get there.”

Former student Bree McKendrick is now a senior at the University of Memphis. She plays viola and is majoring in music education, with plans to be a middle school music teacher.

Tenney “had a huge part” in her decision to pursue teaching music, Bree said.

“I told her in seventh grade that I wanted to be a music teacher, and she said, ‘Let me know when you get to high school and I will help you.’ She helped me get a job at Interlochen, she set me up with lessons with Dylana Jenson (wife of previous Grand Rapids Symphony director David Lockington). She has been super-supportive.”

And that goes for other students.

“(Tenney) started at Lowell with something like 12 students in middle school orchestra, and now she’s taking in 120 sixth-graders a year. It’s a ridiculous amount of growth,” Bree marveled. “Not only that, but the entire community is really excited about Lowell’s music program.

“She’s so positive and energetic. And she gives everything to her students. It’s an insane amount she works for her program.”

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SNN articles about Wendy Tenney and her students

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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