Howard County music educator Richard McCready has multiple talents — he holds master's degrees in voice and tuba, and also plays piano, organ, and guitar. But, as one colleague puts it, his most remarkable characteristic is his love for passing on these abilities.
"It is rare to find someone who is so unbelievably gifted and whose greatest joy is sharing it with other people," said Michael Blackman, a band and music theory teacher at River Hill High School, where McCready teaches guitar and music technology. "That's the thing about Richard."
McCready is one of 25 semifinalists for the 2016 Grammy Music Educator Award selected from more than 4,500 nominees from all 50 states, according to a press release.
"Most people who are that brilliant just don't really have that passion for sharing it with others," Blackman added. "And it's never about [McCready]. It's always about the kids. I totally want to be like that where, whatever knowledge I've accumulated, it's just for passing on to other people."
McCready has taught at River Hill High for eight years, and taught at Mayfield Elementary School for six years before that. He credits his parents, both retired theater teachers, with his love and ability for teaching kids.
"Growing up with them, I was really able to see just what they did to inspire young people," he said. "I learned the most about teaching from them. No amount of college courses could've taught me the art of what it means to connect with people."
McCready's ability to connect — he constantly cracks jokes with his students and talks to them as peers — puts his students at ease.
"I always just felt comfortable in his class, and a lot of times during lunch I would just go hang out with him in his classroom," said Dominic Tenaglia, a former River Hill High student who is currently a freshman at Berklee College of Music. "I would just stay in his class for the whole two hours because I didn't want to go talk to kids my age. I wanted to hang out with Mr. McCready."
"The two most important words I learned from my mom about teaching was, 'Be yourself,'" said McCready, who grew up in Ireland. "People try to come into the classroom and be somebody different than they are. What you see in the classroom is just who I am. I don't pretend to be anybody else, and so my love of music just sort of extends into what I do."
On Monday during advanced guitar class at River Hill High School, McCready, sporting a bowtie and wire-rimmed glasses, belted out "Sweet Home Chicago" while strumming the song's bluesy chord progression along with his students. In between chorus refrains, he pointed at students and shouted their names when he wanted them to take solos.
The class looked like a few friends jamming in someone's living room.
"I had guitar first period through junior and senior year, and I don't know if I would've gone to school if I hadn't have had it," said Briana Vidi, a freshman at Belmont University who took several of McCready's classes while she was a student at River Hill High. "It gave me something to look forward to. I'd walk in, and I was like, 'Ah, I'm here.' It's so comfortable."
But McCready not only puts students at ease, he pushes them out of their comfort zones too.
"He'd see an interest and grow those interests," said Vidi, who is now majoring in audio engineering technology. "For example, he lent me one of his mandolins and gave me a stack of books and he was like, 'Here, go learn this over the summer, and that way you can play it next year.'"
Along with guitar, McCready teaches music technology, which is a course he created for River Hill High in 2007. Since then, his music technology curriculum has been implemented at all Howard County high schools.
In recognition of this accomplishment, McCready was the 2013 recipient of the Technology Institute for Music Educators Mike Kovins TI:ME Teacher of the Year Award.
"We have this whole performance thing dominating American music education ... But here we have kids learning technological skills with musicianship, composition, theory, all through the computer," McCready told the Howard County Times in 2013 after winning the award. "Instead of a clarinet being their instrument, the computer is their instrument."
In McCready's music technology classes, students learn how to compose original music using computers.
"You don't have to know how to play an instrument to learn in this class," said Killiam Grimm, a German student who is on exchange at River Hill High. He likes the freedom of creating his own music, which he said he is not able to do in school in Germany.
"I like that a lot, to do what I want to, and to make my own songs," he said. "You just want to learn more and more because you can create your own projects and express yourself."
"It's just a really good platform to be creative in ways that you can't really with just one instrument, by yourself," said Julia Swanner, a sophomore at River Hill High who plays flute and piccolo. "So it's a really great platform to experiment and have fun with it, and create and compose."
During class, Killiam and Julia used a keyboard connected to their computers to create musical loops. Using music composition software, they layered different instruments and tracks on top of these loops to create their own songs.
If chosen as one of the 10 Grammy Music Educator Award finalists announced in December, McCready will receive a $1,000 honorarium and a matching grant for River Hill High. If chosen as the winner, McCready will be flown out to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards ceremony in February 2016 to accept the award and receive a $10,000 honorarium, as well as a matching grant for his school.
In the meantime, McCready is advising the Maryland State Department of Education on its new arts curriculum in the hope that his creative method of music education will spread to other programs.
"Going through schools as a musician, what we've had for the last couple of hundred years has been performing, performing, performing. But music is more than just reading dots on a page of what someone else wrote," said McCready. "Kids are not just performers. Kids are creators. I want my students to be creating all the time."