Not Your Typical Music Teacher

By Jenny Barnett, January 24, 2023

Heather Rosner ’05, ’10 brings music to everyone she meets.

Students strum bass guitars and ukuleles, and play pianos, tambourines, tubanos, and drums as their conductor—Heather Rosner ’05, ’10—energetically bounces around the room, connecting with every child as she moves. It’s the Alexandria City Public Schools Teacher Appreciation Week video for 2021-22, and the music, arranged by Rosner, is performed by the George Mason Elementary School Band in Alexandria, Virginia. 

It’s not your typical elementary school band—but Rosner is not your typical instrumental music teacher. 

Rosner’s goal—which she began pursuing while a Music Education undergrad at Ithaca College and has continued since coming to the ACPS district in 2010 after completing her master’s—is to provide all children with access to music. She has fought hard to eliminate barriers—navigating scheduling conflicts, reducing paperwork and financial obligations, and offering extra practice sessions in the community—and is extremely proud that every fourth and fifth grader at George Mason takes part in instrumental music.  

Heather Rosner

Heather Rosner ’05, ’10. (Photo submitted)

When the pandemic hit, all Rosner’s students continued their wind, brass, and percussion instruction at home, with their teacher making visits to families’ yards to repair and deliver instruments. She involved whole households in her virtual bands. Older siblings who were former students were enlisted as assistant coaches, helping set up hand positions. Parents and caregivers were signed up too: “Dad, you played guitar 20 years ago. Do you know your C chord? Good. We’re putting it together!” shares Rosner of her recruitment tactics. 

The resulting 2020 Zoom holiday concert prompted an appearance in local paper Alexandria Times’ Speak Easy podcast that November and a profile in The Washington Post the following month. 

Once students returned in person, a new challenge arose.  Elementary schoolers had to be masked and weren’t initially allowed to play any instruments. Rather than teach theory and air fingering, Rosner pivoted her approach. “No kid wants to be theoretical about it. They want to make music,” she said.  

Rosner purchased ukuleles and electric basses—instruments her students would be able to play under the new restrictions, and that were more affordable than classical wind instruments, allowing her to reoutfit the program using a community donation. The band was so successful the school district designed the teacher appreciation video to feature it. For Rosner, it represented “a picture of a reinvented program.”  

Rosner also loves to teach conventional bands and ensembles, but she believes that offering students an accessible variety of instruments—and ones with more “social currency”, like guitars—will mean more are likely to learn to play and continue in their twenties or thirties. 

“The School of Music was incredibly supportive if I needed materials, books, or instruments."

Heather Rosner

Politics professor at IC Naeem Inayatullah experienced Rosner’s teaching style firsthand when she assisted him in explaining polyrhythms to his class at IC. Her demonstration captivated them all.  

“It only took her about 25 minutes,” he says, “but I could see immediately that the students were very engaged with her.” 

While the original plan had been for Rosner to lead just one session, she agreed to participate every week, and essentially turned the class into “a dancing, singing, and drumming band,” says Inayatullah. She also prepped the students for an end-of-semester concert. Rosner insisted Inayatullah had a role, too. “I think I was fourth bell!” he laughs. 

Rosner, who hails from Rockville, MD, started learning trumpet in fourth grade. She had a dynamic, engaging teacher but little formal training. When she arrived on South Hill as a euphonium player, she felt strong on musicality but lacking in technical skills, relative to her peers. She credits the patience of her professors with enabling her to thrive. 

In May 2005, her junior year, Rosner travelled to Ghana with Professor Baruch Whitehead and began a relationship with the Dagara Music Center and Saakumu Dance Troupe. While there, she learned to play the Gyil—a traditional West African wooden xylophone (pronounced JEEL)—which she has since taught her students in several schools and residential facilities.  

After graduation, Rosner stayed in the Ithaca area, landing a position as a music teacher for two years at a children’s treatment facility in Seneca county where she developed an instrumental music program for youth with developmental delay, emotional disturbance, and behavioral challenges.  

Rosner had ignited her passion for bringing music to underserved youth as an undergrad. Through a connection initiated by composition professor Dana Wilson (now emeritus), and supported by many of her IC professors, she volunteered at a number of juvenile court-ordered facilities. She also taught music to incarcerated youth while doing her master’s, often bringing IC students to assist for independent study credit.  

“The School of Music was incredibly supportive if I needed materials, books, or instruments,” she says.  

Rosner currently teaches weekly classes in the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in a program she developed and continues to rack up accolades for the impact she has on her students.  

In June 2022, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce included her in their 40 under 40 list where “each honoree was selected for their professional accomplishments, scholastic achievement, community impact, and personal story.” In September 2022, she made the finalists list for Northern Virginia Magazine’s Teacher of the Year awards. Her nomination cited glowing praise from students’ families.  

“My son told me one time, ‘Do you think Ms. Rosner knows that she changed my life?’” says parent Anne Reynolds. “Heather Rosner is the type of teacher that goes above and beyond for her students every day.”