By Katie V. Jones

From nothing comes ideas. That’s what Tony Small, director of fine arts at St. Vincent Pallotti High School, learned during his first years as an arts educator in Chicago more than 30 years ago. With no funding to purchase music or the rights to shows, Small wrote his own music and shows to give his students the opportunity to perform.

Tony Small
Courtesy Tony Small

“I didn’t have books; it drove me crazy,” he said, as he sat in his office on a Monday afternoon in December. “Necessity is the mother of invention. You create as you go.”

Small said that those challenges largely shaped him as an educator and helped him standout and be recognized as one of 10 finalists for the 2023 Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum. The award “recognizes educators who have made a significant contribution to the music education field,” according to the GRAMMY Awards website.

“I’m just honored,” Small said. “I don’t know who nominated me.”

After being nominated and filling out an application, Small was informed he was a quarterfinalist in June and was asked to submit video testimonials and classroom footage. He learned that he was a semifinalist in October, and in December, Small got word that he was a finalist. According to the GRAMMY Awards website, the 2023 finalists hail from 10 cities across eight states and were selected from more than 1,205 nominations.

Tony Small in his office at St. Vincent Pallotti High School.
Photo Credit: Katie V. Jones

“I love my students; I really do,” Small said. “They’re the ones who make me proud.”

Long after the bell had rung at St. Vincent Pallotti High School that afternoon in December, Small stood next to the piano in his office while John John Singh, a senior, played. Humming and swaying along, Small nodded his head and gave comments as Singh took mental notes.

“He helped me improve my sight reading; I really play much better,” said Singh, who has been playing the piano since he was 3 years old. “He does task me with a bunch of things and has given me good basics. “

Joy Charbonneau-Lovaas, 15, said Small helped her perform her “best show ever” in the role of Telly in the school’s fall production of “Godspell.”

“He found time to work with me and go over every piece of the song,” said Charbonneau-Lovaas, who sang “All Good Gifts” in the musical. “He wears many hats at Pallotti. It’s amazing how he finds time for every student.”

Small came to Pallotti in 2021 after working with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington for 14 years; while there, he created the organization’s Teen Arts Program. As the director of the Pallotti High School Arts Academy, Small leads the chorus and teaches, including classes in music theory and keyboard.

“The arts here are valued,” he said. Small noted that he is impressed with the program’s foundation and support. “I step back and allow … [students] to make mistakes. I’m kind of laid back and allow them to take risks and chances,” he said.                                                                                                                                                                                 

One of his favorite classes to teach is beginning piano, which  is new to the curriculum this school year. A piano teacher for 30 years, Small boasts he can teach anyone to play the piano in three months, and he points to his Pallotti class of mostly athletes as proof.

“They are really decent piano players,” Small said. “They stop attacking the piano and learn how to play. They have fun.”

If chosen for the Grammy, Small will receive a $10,000 honorarium and a matching grant for Pallotti’s music program. And even if he does not win, as a finalist, he will receive a $1,000 honorarium and a matching grant for the school’s art department.

The winner will be announced during GRAMMY Week 2023, which takes place before the 65th awards show on Feb. 5.

“When you get awards, you get a lot of offers,” Small said. “It’s good to be at a place with options. Pallotti is the place I need to be. I love the kids here.”

Tony Small listens to his student John John Singh rehearse a piece.
Photo Credit: Katie V. Jones

Both Singh and Charbonneau-Lovaas appreciate the extra things Small does for his students, including stocking a snack drawer in the bottom of a filing cabinet and keeping an  always-open door. He even helped Singh fix a flat tire.

“He is such a busy guy and so supportive of students and the arts,” Charbonneau-Lovaas said. “He is an incredible person.”