Musical Excellence & Cooperative Classroom Earns West Her Fulbright

EXPOSING HER STUDENTS to a variety of professional atmospheres has been a focus of Mary Jo West’s (center, crouching) music curriculum. That includes bringing members of the jazz ensemble to perform community concerts throughout Falls Church. (Photo: Courtesy Mary Jo West)

George Mason High School band teacher Mary Jo West was selected for the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms this year because of the worldly, sophisticated program that she has built through technical rigor and a family spirit she has cultivated among her pupils.

Her selection allows her travel to France sometime after May 2021.

“We feel so lucky to have Mary Jo. She brings such dedication and talent and has influenced thousands over the years,” said Falls Church City Public Schools Community Outreach Director Marybeth Connelly. West is in her 24th year with the school system.

The program is sponsored by the U. S. State Department and the J. William Fulbright Scholar Board with the intention of promoting best educational practices across the globe. Fulbright Scholars traditionally participate in workshops, travel to foreign countries and create educational guides that serve as a resource to their local communities. West is one of approximately 71 scholars selected this year.

As a teacher, West has been consciously striving for global music education. She began her career teaching in Japan and is currently collaborating with a band in Morocco during the Covid-19 pandemic. Among her proudest accomplishments, she has worked as an examiner, curriculum developer and workshop leader for the IB music program since being invited to Cardiff, Wales, 20 years ago to participate in a workshop.

“The Fulbright program is about teaching in a global classroom. Global competency is teaching students to investigate the world, communicate effectively and take meaningful action. When it’s applied to the classroom, it’s been very powerful,“ said West.

Teaching students the fundamentals of both IB and standard music curriculum has helped West develop a reputation throughout the community as one of the hardest working members of Mason’s faculty.
“I would observe on the bus [during the band’s annual Spring trip] that she would spend hours working with students on their IB music performance. She gives so much of herself,” said band booster president Ari Autor. Autor’s son, Alec, currently plays trombone at Mason.

Autor’s older son, Christian, is a junior at Trinity College in Connecticut where he minors in music as a trumpeter. He has also been selected to play at the Sydney Opera House. Autor credits West for not only her excellence as a band instructor, but also as a program director. One thing West does frequently is host clinics where professionals come in and give the students guidance.

Both Autor and Mason saxophonist Kieran Cummings note that she’s equally supportive of kids for whether they plan to pursue music after high school or not. Culkin says she’s more focused on them achieving great stuff in the present.

“She puts her entire heart into whatever we’re working on. Whether it’s a final concert or playing for the elementary school, Mrs. West knows that wherever we play, we can play our best,” said Culkin.

WEST HAS EVEN brought her guitar classes to visit 38 North Studios, which is based in Falls Church. (Photo: Courtesy Mary Jo West)

While West’s program doesn’t have chairs (a hierarchical system that ranks players), she prides herself on the fact that the band plays a repertoire with a grading of six at district assessments which is the most advanced setting of the sheet music.

Autor describes the band as a “family spirit” rather than one of competition.
“When I think of my superstars, they pay their dues,” said West.

“At the end of every single year I felt like I had grown so much as a percussionist. Every year, the music challenged me in new ways that ended up making me a better musician,” said Mason percussionist Henrik Baum.

Unlike many area high schools, the Mason’s band does not have a marching season. Part of the reason, according to West, is that it allows more people to be in band while being able to play fall sports.

To make up for it, they do a lot of concerts out in the community. In a typical year, various incarnations of the school’s music program will perform at the Falls Church Arts Center, the community center for senior citizens, Treefest at the Four Provinces, the Falls Church News-Press Holiday Party and the elementary schools.

“She’s always willing to bring joy through music to the members of our community. She gives students an opportunity to share their talents and she gives the community an opportunity to appreciate this fine music department,” said Connelly.

“It’s one of the most important parts of playing in a band as it gives us a goal to work towards that doesn’t have as much pressure as, say, our spring concert or band assessment. It’s also really nice to give back to the community, as I know a lot of what helps fund our band program comes from them,” said Cummings.

The Fulbright Award is one of many that West has picked up. She has also picked up accolades from the Grammy Awards and the Washington Post.

She was named one of the ten finalists for the Teacher of the Year award in 2014 by the Grammy Foundation and she was named an Agnes Meyer Teacher of the Year in 2006 by the Post. At the end of the day, however, West said “I really can’t say what impact the awards have on the way the students see me”

“I continue to teach, continue to learn and be inspired. That’s what it’s about, conveying a passion for learning, striving for excellence and caring deeply about each other,” she said.