William Ryan gets the chills when he hears River Hill High School's musicians play.
"It gives you goose bumps when you hear students at the high school level performing pieces that are such high quality," said Ryan, the school's principal.
He attributes much of the music program's success to band director M. Joseph Fischer.
"Joe has worked with [students] and supported them to be able to play at that level," Ryan said. "To know that you have a strong teacher that's really supporting and pushing to a strong level makes you feel good about our music program."
Last month, Fischer received a Maryland Music Educator's Association Award for Excellence as an outstanding music teacher. He was one of three Maryland teachers who received the award.
Fischer will direct River Hill's Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band today and tomorrow during the county's district band festival. The event, held at Glenelg High School, is open to the public and features county high school bands performing before a panel of judges.
Fischer, 34, started his music career as a trumpet player in elementary school. He grew up in Harford County.
"Music education was a decision that I consciously made probably my sophomore year of high school," Fischer said. "To do something I loved ... that's what I set my mind to."
Fischer remembered, "In high school ... it was the group of people," that attracted him to music. "It certainly gave me an extended family at school being in the band program. We use the same anecdote here" at River Hill.
Fischer, who lives in Perry Hall with his wife and two preschool-age daughters, often tells students, "If you're in the band, you already have 150 friends. ... We definitely thrive on the family atmosphere."
"Music is our way of expressing ourselves," said Emily Reed, 16. The 11th-grader plays piccolo for Fischer's wind ensemble and marching band. "I always feel like the band room and playing music is my home, and he's the one that always makes me feel that way," she said.
Fischer, who is pursuing a master of music education degree at Towson University, has been teaching for 11 years. He is in his fourth year at River Hill, where more than 200 students participate in the music program. Fischer directs seven groups, including the school's orchestra, jazz ensemble and marching band.
"The thing that has really made me the happiest here at River Hill is the support for music," Fischer said. In addition to students and parents, he attributes the music department's excellence to a school system that "views music as a necessity within creating well-rounded students."
Fischer said that one of the benefits of teaching music is that it is not a required class. "I get to deal with kids who truly want to be there and are motivated by the fact that it's something they love," he said.
Fischer uses humor in the classroom, but he also challenges his musicians - as he did this year with the wind ensemble.
"Sometimes we look at him like, 'We can't play this.' But he always tells us that he wouldn't put something in front of us that we couldn't play," Reed said.
Reed noted that Fischer often acts out music so that students will understand changes in style and tone. "When the music gets really dark [Fischer acts] like people are coming after him. ... That always makes us laugh because he's this grown man ... dancing up there," Reed said.
She added, "That also makes us know he loves what he's doing."
Fischer's success as a teacher is "tied to his sense of humor, to his dedication, his expectation for a high level of play," said Ryan. "You can see it in the kids - they like him, he likes them ... which is really what being a great teacher is about, building great relationships with the kids."
A group of River Hill parents nominated Fischer - who was Howard County's Music Educator of the Year in 2005-2006 - for the MMEA award.
Ryan said the award is "well-deserved. Joe really has built our music program into one of the pre-eminent programs in the region and in the state."
One example is the school's marching band, which took second place at a national competition held in the fall at the Naval Academy.
Fischer attended an awards ceremony last month during MMEA's annual conference at the Baltimore Convention Center. Several of his previous band directors were there.
"I was in the presence of some of the people who had influence on me in becoming a music director and had watched my progress," Fischer said. "It was a chance to reflect on all the pieces that had to fall in to place for me to get where I was as a teacher."