Southampton teacher Dimitri Kauriga was named the grand prize winner of Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s 2017 Ovation Award
By Samantha Bambino
When you’ve happily been at the same job for 30 years, you must be doing something right. This is certainly the case for music teacher Dimitri Kauriga, who can go anywhere from his local grocery store to Florida for vacation, and receive praise from past students. Earlier this month in a surprise presentation, Kauriga was named the grand prize winner of the Fourth Annual Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Ovation Award.
The PYO’s Ovation Award for Inspiration and Outstanding Leadership in Music Education has been honoring excellence in music instruction since its inaugural year in 2014. The award honors music teachers in the Delaware Valley who not only successfully teach music to their students, but also instill confidence in them.
For 30 years, Kauriga was a beloved music teacher at Philadelphia High School for Girls before he retired. Though he has made a positive impact on countless students and now has a deep respect for the education system, teaching wasn’t what he initially set out to do.
Growing up, Kauriga was surrounded by music. His father was a music teacher and freelance performer, and his mother was a professional singer. It seemed only natural that Kauriga would follow in their footsteps, but music was something he had to learn to love.
“At first it (practicing) was a chore, but then it grew into a passion,” he said.
A few years were spent performing as an accompanist, and he graduated from a music conservatory with every intention of embarking on a live performance career. But a different and even more rewarding future awaited.
At a local school, there was a shortage of teachers, so Kauriga agreed to step in to substitute with the intention of filling in for just a few months. However, the person he was subbing for fell ill and never returned, so Kauriga kept going.
“I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but I found it very gratifying,” he said.
Since he fell into the classroom by chance, Kauriga had no education degree. After receiving the necessary credits for his teaching credential, he went on to work at Greenberg Elementary School, and eventually worked as a professor at Community College of Philadelphia teaching adults, which he says he thoroughly enjoyed. Most of his students at CCP were retirees in their 60s and 70s who always wanted to learn music, but never had the time because of jobs and families.
After CCP, Kauriga found his home at Philadelphia High School for Girls, where he taught musical practice and theory for 30 years. Though countless students have come through his classroom, one will always naturally stand above the rest — his daughter. While most teens might be embarrassed to have their dad at school with them every day, Kauriga’s daughter embraced it. She entered his class with a strong foundation as a rock drummer, and left as a skilled percussionist. She truly enjoyed her father’s class and learning the arts, and even took a lead role in the school’s production of Grease.
Each student in Kauriga’s class was treated as if they were his own son or daughter, with some still calling to wish him a “Happy Father’s Day” each June. His patience and insight into the power of music are what inspired past student Elisabeth D’Alessandro to nominate him for the Ovation Award.
At D’Alessandro’s previous school, she was forced to learn the trombone because that’s all they had available. Upon arrival at Philadelphia High School for Girls, Kauriga worked to find her an instrument she’d be more content with, and she quickly mastered the trumpet under his instruction. She has followed in her favorite teacher’s footsteps, and took his place teaching music at her alma mater.
“Mr. Kauriga was a model of commitment and dedication. He got to school early, stayed late and rarely took a break,” D’Alessandro said. “He embodied the work ethic which he demanded of his students. He inspired generations of students to achieve above and beyond what we thought we could. His faith in our ability gave us the confidence we needed to excel.”
As the grand prize winner chosen by a panel of judges out of 10 finalists, Kauriga received a crystal trophy from Jacobs Music Company commemorating his award, a gift card from J.W. Pepper and a $1,000 honorarium from the H.E.L.P. Foundation. Although he appreciates the monetary award, the honor means more, especially being chosen over “top shelf teachers,” three of whom were close friends of his.
“Just a thank you and recognition is the greatest thing in the world,” he said.
Upon retirement, Kauriga became a consultant for other local schools’ music programs. Though it’s a strange experience stepping into the classrooms of other teachers, he was pleased with what he saw. According to Kauriga, arts programs aren’t usually the first thing funded, especially in city schools, and too often there is a severe lack of space and money. But the teachers are powering through for the sake of fostering young talent.
“People are really doing a fine job under dire situations,” he said. “You have to shake the bushes. You have to find it and develop it. There are talented kids everywhere.”
Today, Kauriga is a co-music director of Bensalem Presbyterian Church with his wife Lenore, gives private piano and flute lessons and has a heavy interest in ethnic music, particularly all forms of Slavonic music. ••