Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble Turns 40 and Its Creator, Doug Burris, Retires

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The Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble is a storied local institution.

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.

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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.

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Miami Beach Senior High School Auditorium

2231 Prairie Ave., Miami Beach, FL

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8 comments
Clark Douglas Burris
Clark Douglas Burris

 thank you Hal... It was a thrill having you play in the Rock ensemble orchestra. Your musicianship, amazing sense of humor and formidable presence added to the overwhelming success of the evening. You're the man!

Clark Douglas Burris
Clark Douglas Burris

 I would like to thank everyone who participated in any way in the "rock ensemble 40th annual concert ". It was truly an amazing evening of music, camaraderie and love. I was overwhelmed by the support of the community (standing room only), fellow teachers, students and, of course, the Rock ensemble performers from years gone by and this year's  talented kids. It was an inspirational memory that I will relive countless times for the rest of my life. And... when the DVD is completed we all be able to relive it in digital sound and color! You light up my life...  with unending love.  Mr. Burris

Highland Falls, NY
Highland Falls, NY

Mr. Burris is a Force!He is a Leader of great standards and furfiller of dreams!In his love for music, people, and excellance, he reached and rewarded all that were dedicated.He is so loved and admired that he must write "His Book!"I can't wait to read it!

The Rock Ensemble Concert! Was FANTASTIC!But, I knew it would be!!!!!!It was thrilling!

Glenn
Glenn

Thinking back to my days in Rock Ensemble when we studied songs by Styx, I'd like to say "Thank you very much, Mr. Delgado" for your article on Mr. Burris.  It's very much in harmony with Doug's uplifting spirit.

Michael Brewer, HFHS '72
Michael Brewer, HFHS '72

Mr. Burris was resourceful way back at one of his early endeavors with high school age kids.  He pioneered a program that allowed students to opt out of a basic music class and opt into either band or choir.  I was one of those kids who couldn't sing so I wanted to play the French Horn.  Mr Burris sat me down and explained that I didn't quite have the aperture  for the French Horn and that I might be more suited for the Tuba.  I didn't care, I couldn't read music, much less play a note.  Mr. Burris got me started, he inspired me to practice hard and within a few weeks threw me into the band practice.  With only one other Tuba player who had to point the notes out with his left hand as we rehearsed the music to lead me along I was able to gain enough moxie to become a musician.  His youthful exuberance then has given me a lifetime of appreciation for the musician, artist and music all these days of my life.  Never a day goes by when I don't hear music and thank Mr. Burris for what he was able to ignite in me that still burns today.  I so wish I could be in Miami Saturday for this event.  Although I won't be there my appreciation for what this man has done with his life will be there mixed in with the spirit of those who do attend and show their tribute to all he has done for us through his life, shared with us.  Love you Doug,...rock on. 

Ex Norwegian
Ex Norwegian

It's truly going to be a memorable show. 40 years of Rock Ensemble alumni together, for the first and last time, going out with a rock'n'roll bang!!

Jennifer Holbert
Jennifer Holbert

My late husband, Greg Holbert,  was one of his students, graduating in 1987. His time with Rock Ensemble was critical to him and left a lasting impression on the power of education, no matter the obstacle, no matter the hardships. I had so enjoyed stories of this group and commend Mr. Burris for his dedication to teaching a love of more than just music in his classroom.

Hal
Hal

An amazing inspiration of life. I first met Mr. Burris in 1968 when he was the band director at Highland Falls High School in Highland Falls, New York. There was no hint of the disease that would take his mobility. His enthusiasm for teaching and working with budding musicians was new. Looking back 40+ years, Mr. Burris is the only teacher I remember clearly. I particularly remember him working with some of the younger students helping them prepare for an upcoming performance. Clearly, his love of teaching was unstoppable. If we only knew ... would we have appreciated him more at the time? I do now. Thank's Mr. Burris!

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