Chuck DiGregorio almost deleted a rather important email.
It was a message from the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Music Institute informing him that he was a finalist for the 10th Annual Ovation Award, which has been honoring music teachers in the Delaware Valley region since 2014.
As someone who doesn’t seek recognition or accolades for his work as orchestra director of Belmont Hills, Benjamin Rush and Russell C. Struble elementary schools in the Bensalem Township School District, his first thought was that the email had to be spam.
Turns out, it was real.
A student whom DiGregorio taught 18 years ago nominated him for the award, penning an essay on the required topic, “How My Music Teacher Changed My Life.” Since the program’s inception, hundreds of nominations have been made by current and former students, all of whom are vocal about the lifelong impact that music educators can have on a young person.
“I’m just happy I could create a safe space for her and just do something meaningful,” DiGregorio told The Times. “But I never got into it for the praise. So when something bigger comes up, I honestly don’t know how to react to it.”
DiGregorio, of Feasterville, joined the other finalists and winner Noelle Casella Grand, director of the Grand School of Music, in Verizon Hall at The Kimmel Center on June 4 for a ceremony.
“I don’t mind losing to Noelle Grand by the way, because she’s kind of legendary in the area,” DiGregorio said with a laugh.
DiGregorio has been with the Bensalem Township School District for 20 years, with his position transitioning from an interim middle and high school band director to his current strings role. He works with students in grades 3-6, most of whom have minimal to no experience playing a string instrument.
In order to keep the kids excited and motivated for the duration of the school year, DiGregorio has implemented some unique strategies and philosophies, including the adoption of techniques from his martial arts background.
For example, he explains how performing a bow stroke on a violin involves learning a physical movement, just like a punch in karate. Additionally, just as those training in martial arts need to know and be able to execute certain movements before advancing to the next level, DiGregorio’s orchestra students must complete a beginner program before earning a spot in the advanced orchestra.
“It keeps them going and gives them something to strive for,” he said. “You’ve got to keep them interested in wanting to get better, that’s the real hard thing.”
Once past the beginner level, students have the opportunity to learn and perform pieces arranged by DiGregorio. And no, they’re not playing Beethoven. DiGregorio creates pop and rock arrangements that feature U2, Michael Jackson, Coldplay and more. While some of these older acts take a little bit of explaining (like The Police and how Sting isn’t a bee sting), DiGregorio finds that a good chunk of students end up exploring more of the music on their own time.
“I spend my Christmas break making music for spring,” he said. “And just every year as a teacher, you try to find ways to get better, try to find ways to offer more to the kids and maximize your impact. You can’t hold a grade over their head, so you’ve gotta make it enticing.”
Another longtime teaching strategy of DiGregorio’s is to not take something away from a student as punishment. For example, if a child can’t make a practice, they won’t experience the repercussion of not being allowed to perform in an upcoming concert. Instead, DiGregorio will say something along the lines of, “Well, you’re really gonna miss out, we’re having a great time over here, I’m sorry you can’t make it.”
DiGregorio’s ultimate goal is to create a welcoming space where students want to be and don’t feel they’re forced to be. A prime example of this is Orchestra Camp, which takes place annually on the two days before Thanksgiving. Schools are closed for parent/teacher conferences, so DiGregorio invites students to come practice for a few hours. It’s a completely free and voluntary experience, but he’s seen upwards of 85 kids stop by on their days off. Alumni help out by breaking the kids up into beginner and experienced groups, who then work to hone their skills.
“It’s literally the best thing I’ve ever done for my program, and it gives the kids a sense of ownership and a lot of pride in their playing,” he said. “That’s one way to recharge them when they’re getting discouraged because they’ve been at it, like, ‘Ah, it’s not new anymore.’ It becomes new again in November.”
From the start of the school year to the end, DiGregorio is a busy guy. Not only is he basically an independent contractor, going from school to school to recruit interested string players, he, for the most part, works solo. Bensalem’s music department is small but mighty when it comes to its handful of staff members, who all share the same goal: teach any student who wants to pursue music.
Though the number of students DiGregorio sees weekly decreased exponentially post-COVID (250 to about 100), he doesn’t mind.
“I don’t care if it’s small, as long as every kid is playing,” he said. “I could do a group with 15 kids, and I’m sure I could make it just as successful as 75 kids that are less interested.”
For any child who joins the orchestra and works hard, there are many benefits, said DiGregorio. These include the building of self-confidence in other areas of life and creative out-of-the-box thinking.
“If you succeed in something like that, then you have the confidence to push yourself forward for whatever it is,” he said.
Ironically, DiGregorio, who once upon a time moved to Georgia to join a band with his friends, never pictured himself as an educator, let alone an award-nominated one. In fact, he attended The University of the Arts to play music, not learn how to teach it.
“I did not envision it, but I love it and it still keeps me creative and it’s very rewarding,” he said. “I like to think I’m pretty good at it at this point.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com