Know Your Community
Steve Acciani has been a band director for almost 30 years and runs one of the top programs in the country at Diamond Bar High School in southern California. He’s learned a few things along the way and one of his best pieces of advice to fellow music educators is to know your community.
Diamond Bar, a mid-size suburb about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, has changed a lot since Acciani first started teaching in the school district in the late 1980s. Today, it has a high Asian population which makes up almost 70% of Diamond Bar’s student body. It’s a community with high academic standards, Acciani said, but different expectations for out of school activities. The Diamond Bar Marching Band used to spend fall weekends going to competitions but Acciani realized that wasn’t an activity his community would support anymore.
Rather than have kids drop band, Acciani dropped competitions and his program has thrived. Currently there are 800 kids involved in music – 400 in band, 300 in orchestra and 100 more in color guard. Besides the marching band, which still performs at football games and parades, Diamond Bar has 21 other performing ensembles and had 68 students selected for this year’s Southern California Honor Band. In 2014, Diamond Bar was named a National Grammy Signature School for the second time, the only high school in California to earn that honor, and last year Acciani was one of 25 semifinalists, out of 7,000 nominees, for the GRAMMY Foundation Music Educator Award.
“The first thing is to look at the community and see what its needs are,” Acciani said. “You have to understand your community, then set a really strong philosophy of what’s important and stick to that.”
Eliminating competitions, Acciani said “allowed us more time to focus on performing ensembles and learning more demanding music. The playing has gotten better just by dropping one thing. It’s a different type of program now but we changed to fit the needs of the community.”
Acciani makes sure his students give back to the community as well, both by performing and volunteering around town. That has helped increase visibility and solidify support for the music program. “We often get asked now to support community events or even provide a group for a wedding,” Acciani said. “We will play any event anywhere.”
It’s All About the Kids
With such a large program, it would be easy for some students to fall through the cracks but Acciani makes every effort to fill the different needs of each student.
“We’ve individualized it as much as we can,” he said of his program. “Even with 800 kids we make it about the individual so every kid gets to maximize their potential.”
For example, the school has developed a Performing Arts Academy to further develop top students who are serious about a music career.
The Academy was modeled after Julliard’s pre-college program and consists of two years of extra courses in Music History, Music Theory and Aural Skills as well as solo and chamber performance requirements. Auditions take place during freshman year and there are currently 100 students enrolled.
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t holding them back,” Acciani said. “We wanted to make sure we were giving them every opportunity to be successful.”
In addition, Diamond Bar brings professional musicians on campus every day to work with all the music students, teaching group and private lessons, giving clinics and coaching ensembles.
It’s all part of the school’s mission to nurture an enjoyment and understanding of the arts and help students learn to be creative, share ideas and express themselves through performances.
“You have to give the kids a purpose,” Acciani said. “What is the reason to become good players. It has to be a specific goal in mind. For me, I feel a sense of obligation to produce intelligent consumers of music. Otherwise, the arts are going to die.”
Steve Acciani is the director of instrumental music and the coordinator of the Performing Arts Academy at Diamond Bar High School, in Diamond Bar, California. After graduating from California State University, Fullerton with a BA and Teaching Credential in Music Education, he began his career in the Walnut Valley School District, opening South Pointe Middle School in 1989 with 17 band students. Six years later, he had grown his program to over 600 students, a number that he has maintained in his role as director at Diamond Bar High School. His students consistently receive the highest ratings at music festivals and solo/ensemble competitions setting state records for numbers of students accepted into regional and state honor groups.
In 1999, Mr. Acciani was chosen as one of three Teachers of the Year for Los Angeles County, and was a finalist for California State Teacher of the Year. He was honored by NBC with a “Golden Apple” for his work with students, and was invited to participate in “Unsung Heroes Week”. Mr. Acciani is a former Vice President for High School and Junior High School Honor Groups in the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association. He also spent 10 years as the SCSBOA liaison for the California Band Director’s Association, and is an active clinician in the Southern California area. In 2001 he was awarded a Master’s Degree in Education Administration from Azusa Pacific University.
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