Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble Turns 40 and Its Creator, Doug Burris, Retires
Founded in September 1972, this program has allowed student musicians to travel the country and the world, playing as far away as Chicago and New York, as well as Japan in 2001. The ensemble has won award after award, even receiving a plaque of commendation from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1999.
And behind it all is Doug Burris.
He is the music teacher who arrived at Beach High four decades ago with a simple idea: Set up an after-school guitar group. And thanks to an understanding principal, Dr. Solomon Lichter, the teacher and his pupils were even allowed to focus on rock music.
That all happened one year after Burris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
|Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble creator Doug Burris.|
At this point in his illness, Burris is physically incapacitated, a quadriplegic who needs assistance every day of his life. But after speaking with him for even a brief period of time, it's surprising when he has to ask for help to drink some water -- because though his body is not responsive, his voice booms across the room. And it's obvious he hasn't lost any of his legendary will and passion.
That irrepressible drive and energy has always been the engine behind the consistently successful Rock Ensemble program. And over the years, the local music scene has been indelibly marked by some of Miami Beach Senior High's most talented graduates.
A shortlist of notable alumni includes Rachel Goodrich, Fernando Perdomo of Forward Motion Records, all three members of power-pop trio Jacobs Ladder, Roger Houdaille and the rest of Ex Norwegian, Deaf Poets' Sean Wouters and Nicolas Espinosa, Exposé's Ann Curless, television composer Eve Nelson of Nelson-O'Reilly Productions, singer-songwriter and children's musician Adam Chester, and self-described "orchestral urban composer" David Chesky.
Perdomo considers Burris to be his second father. Oren Maisner of Jacobs Ladder says he is "definitely one of the best teachers I've ever had," and Sean Wouters insists that "he will always be part of our music."
And indeed, Burris's musical impact on young artists is monumental. But as Houdaille points out, his role goes far beyond that of the average music instructor. He is someone who regularly changes the course of young people's lives. It's often repeated by pupils, parents, and others: If it weren't for the Rock Ensemble, many kids would never have finished high school.
In a 2000 CBS Morning Show feature about Burris and the Rock Ensemble, particular attention was paid to the story of Blaze "DJ" Gerrard. A failing student, DJ was ready to drop out until Burris invited him to join the Rock Ensemble as a sound engineer. Three years later, he went off to college.