School of Hard Rocks
Cymbal crashes bounce off the walls of a semicavernous band hall at Miami Beach Senior High School. The low drone of a bass guitar and the crack of a snare drum build up a beat. Then the room erupts with sounds from electric guitars, keyboards, and a brass section complete with trumpet, trombone, and saxophone.
This is no typical high school band. They're not pumping out marches. They're playing rock and roll. On school time.
The singer, a freshman, steps up to the microphone. "I'm just a girl," she coos, the musicians behind her laying down a forceful rhythm on a cover of No Doubt's 1997 ska-punk hit "Just a Girl." All the while the young vocalist mimics, with suitable aplomb, the moves and mannerisms of pop icon and No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani.
"I'm just a girl," she repeats, adding emphasis as the band behind her becomes more energetic. "I'm just a girl in the world," she wails explosively, "'cause that's all that you'll let me be!"
Actually just about now, Beach High music teacher Doug Burris is letting fifteen-year-old singer Costanza Pezet be whatever she wants: imaginary rock star, free-spoken young feminist, out-of-control punk. That's because she's at the mike in Burris's Rock Ensemble, an original program he has been running here at Beach High since 1972. The Rock Ensemble was about the only class of its kind in the country for many years, at least until the late Eighties, when a handful of schools nationwide began to copy his format. Those schools now include Killian High School in Kendall, and more recently, the Dillard School of the Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
Burris and his program are something to emulate. In the past 27 years his unusual ensemble and teaching method have collected numerous national awards. He has been featured in news stories on CNN and MTV. This past summer Burris played himself in an independent motion picture, tentatively titled Beach High: The Movie, scheduled for release later this spring by Miami-based 3LP Productions. And the Florida State Board of Education is considering using Burris's Rock Ensemble as a template for classes throughout Florida.
Those are remarkable achievements for anyone. But for Burris they are extraordinary: He is quadriplegic. He sits immobile in a wheelchair at the front of the class, using the power of his voice and the force of his personality to impart his knowledge and love of music. He's been fighting the crippling disease multiple sclerosis for more than 25 years, and so far he's been winning.
The 56-year-old teacher wakes each weekday at 5:00 a.m. and, rain or shine, showers in his back yard. He can't do this alone, of course. An aide wheels him out to the deck behind his home, straps him to the railing so he doesn't fall out of his rolling shower chair, and quite literally hoses him down. The record low temperature during this daily outing, says four-day-per-week assistant Manny Canete, a former student, is 33 degrees. "I wouldn't do this for anyone but Burris," Canete says. "I'm not considering a career as an aide. But Burris is like family." The aides are often former students to whom Burris pays a small wage to care for him almost 24 hours per day.
After toweling him off and shaving him, Canete dresses Burris, feeds him, and puts him on the lift-equipped Medical Care Transportation van that picks him up at 6:30 a.m. every school day. Canete rides with him to the Beach High campus and shuttles him to a classroom that only Burris has used since it was built in 1982.
Burris spends first period collecting his thoughts and downing a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee (three or four creams, a pack or two of Equal). Second period, freshman Karina Bermudez, the first of several student aides -- one for each of his seven class periods -- takes over. The aides give him a friendly pat on the back or peck on the cheek and remain with him until the period ends, helping keep order and run his classes.
"I feel he needs the help," Bermudez says. Besides first period she also spends her lunch hour with Burris and serves as the assistant director of the Rock Ensemble. "I like doing it. Plus it's good experience for me -- good business experience."
This morning Bermudez assists Burris in filling out various school administration forms and gives him updates on upcoming bookings for the Rock Ensemble and on another pet project, Beach High's Classical Guitar Ensemble. Both groups regularly play paid performances around town. They use the money to cover trips, instruments, and other expenses.
By 8:30 Burris faces his first students, who've come to his room for Classical Guitar I. He allows them a few moments to grab for the several dozen inexpensive nylon-stringed guitars he keeps in a walk-in closet at the back of the room. Then he quiets them and calls out a tune. As beginners they initially struggle to play the beginning notes of a melody, straining their eyes at the sheet music while battling simultaneously with errant fingers wrapped awkwardly around skinny guitar necks.
"A, B, D, B" he says, before singing the notes. He stops the guitarists after they pluck out each phrase, and has them replay it. After repeating this exercise a few times the group catches on, and they eventually begin to strum in a reverberant (though still flawed) unison. Burris calls their attention to the number "13" printed on the sheet music above the thirteenth measure of the song they are attempting. He tells them it's a rehearsal point, and has them play just that measure a few times while he sings the melody.
"I know it'll be tougher for some of you than for others," he says, talking them through a similar exercise at measure sixteen. "What note is that?"
"F," they respond as a whole, with one girl dissenting.
"What was that, Michelle?" Burris questions.
"F-sharp," she says.
"The note is F-sharp," he confirms, "and that note is played fourth finger, fourth string, fourth fret."
Burris sometimes teaches by proxy. "When I explain [how to play] something, out of a classical guitar class of 35 kids, there's got to be at least one who will get it," he says. "Then I have that student model it for the others. And it works, 100 percent."
And so it goes for Burris with his 8:30 and 9:30 beginners. Some will progress no further then this first class; others will move on to his Classical Guitar II at 10:30, or his combined Classical Guitar III and IV class, which meets daily at 12:30. It is these advanced students who eventually perform publicly with the Classical Guitar Ensemble, and who are often inspired to study music at the university level.
But Burris's other classes are pretty inspired as well. At 1:30 each day he hosts a session called Electronic Music that is essentially an hourlong training period for would-be audio engineers and electronic drum or keyboard players. Many of these students hope to find jobs at local recording studios, or as touring sound engineers. Some of them stick around for Burris's 2:30 class: Rock Ensemble.
Young musicians filter into the room as engineers Blaise Girard and David Mercuri, already proficient in electronic puzzles such as a MIDI keyboard connection or a monitor mix, get the PA up and running. Drummers assemble their shared kit; guitarists and bassists plug in their amps.
Burris is bombarded with questions. Karina Bermudez supplies many of the answers and fills her teacher in on the status of a half-dozen other students. The band begins to fire up. These teenagers, ranging from fourteen to eighteen years old, are already accomplished musicians and vocalists. Burris has molded them into a professional unit. And like any professional unit, there's plenty of ego to go around.
Midsong, guitarist Rodolfo Troncoso takes off his instrument, lays it on the floor as the band continues, and walks away. When the tune ends, a screeching feedback sends the engineers scrambling for Troncoso's amp. Burris asks him what happened.
"Did you hear that guitar?" the teen responds.
"I heard it. Why didn't you do something about it?" Burris demands. Troncoso complains that the equipment is inadequate. They decide that from now on he'll bring his own guitar and amp. Later senior Tennille Maisner says she doesn't want to sing "Just a Girl" (Costanza Pezet, the freshman who first sang the song, has decided to drop her daytime classes). Burris replies firmly that he "didn't ask her if she wanted to." Another blowup with singer Talita Real threatens to cast a pall over the room until a student steps in to defuse the situation. Afterward everyone, especially Real and Burris, laughs off the tension.
There are lots of laughs during Burris's classes. And there's obviously a special relationship between teacher and student. No "Mister" -- he's Burris to them. He watches as a group lifelessly plucks out a piece. He tells them, forcefully, directly, to put some emotion into the music. When he becomes animated, he moves his head back and forth. The young rock and rollers mimic him in birdlike motions, calling out: "Do the Burris!"
Today the group runs through a dozen or so songs ranging from classic to modern rock, from R&B standards and pop ballads to Spanish-language reggae-rap. As they rehearse the vocalists sing directly to Burris, looking for any sign of his approval. When Burris realizes the bass player for "Hazy Shade of Winter" is absent, he recruits Troncoso, a lefty who does an admirable job playing a right-handed instrument turned upside down. The singers support each other with harmonious background vocals. Burris, meantime, is analyzing their performance.
The Rock Ensemble class is actually an elective seventh-period class under the auspices of Beach High's night-school program. By the time the students have packed their gear (everything goes into locked side rooms and closets), the school grounds are nearly empty. By 5:30 p.m. when Burris boards the Medical Care Transportation van for the trip home, a personal aide has arrived on the scene; two of them currently are Beach High students.
At home in Coconut Grove (Burris has lived on the same block since 1969) he relaxes with a bourbon and Coke, eats, and listens to music or watches TV. His aides help him with his mail and other household affairs, and he talks them through cooking dinner. ("I love to barbecue," he says.) The lights are usually out by 11:00. When on duty Canete or one of Burris's three other rotating aides sleep in a spare bedroom they call "the bunkhouse."
On Saturdays Burris is at Beach High by 9:00 a.m. to teach classical guitar as one of a dozen or so teachers in the Miami Beach Performing Arts Academy. Some of his more dedicated weekday students attend. He often spends his evenings overseeing public appearances by his Rock Ensemble or Classical Guitar Ensemble.
Recently the classical guitar troupe played a Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce mixer at the Radisson Deauville Resort. The Rock Ensemble performed an afternoon gig in early February at the University of Miami as part of a Grammy in the Schools program. (Both groups are for hire, and average a half-dozen public performances per month between them.) Once or twice a year Burris takes the students farther, to Orlando, Atlanta, New Orleans, or New York for major music competitions, from which they usually return with obnoxiously large trophies.
Burris and company just returned from the biggest event so far this year. This past week the Rock Ensemble pulled into Chicago for yet another competition, then landed in Cleveland for a performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The concert's playlist, which included "Pretty Woman," "Respect," and an encore performance of "I Saw Her Standing There," had prints from the ensemble's pro-genitor stamped all over it.
Clark Douglas Burris was born on March 21, 1942. His father Willard was a carpenter, his mother Phoebe a nurse at her son's elementary school. Doug was the oldest of four children. The Burris family lived in the small town of Monroe, New York, less than two hours from New York City, but worlds away in character. Today Monroe is home to less than 7000 people. During Burris's childhood, it was even smaller. "It was a good place to grow up," he remembers.
By fifth grade Burris had developed an interest in music. He quickly learned his way around a trumpet and, later, the baritone horn (a kind of smaller, higher-pitched tuba), the trombone, and guitar. "I had a very good band director," he says. "He took me all the way through high school. I owe a lot to him."
In fact that teacher was a little like Burris would become later in life. "It was a very formal education, but when we started playing some rock music in the late Fifties he said, 'You guys can do it. It sounds real good. Just go all the way down at the end in that last practice room,'" Burris recalls with a chuckle. "But he was very understanding, and I think he actually liked some of the stuff we were doing."
After graduating from Monroe-Woodbury Central High School in 1960, Burris enrolled in the local community college, where he continued his music education. At night he played guitar and trombone and sang tunes such as Joey Dee and the Starliters' "The Peppermint Twist" and Ray Charles's "What'd I Say?" in a rock band called the Variations.
"I paid my way through college in club bands, almost 100 percent. When I was in junior college I played three nights a week," he says.
Itching for adventure after two years, Burris hit the road. He accepted a scholarship to Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he would play in the university's marching band. "I thought I was going to be attending some inferior Southern college. I didn't know it, but FSU at that time was ranked in the top ten in the country for music. It was like going to a conservatory, something I hadn't counted on."
Burris found it hard to concentrate on his studies the first couple years at FSU. He met his future wife Susan Brinkman from nearby Live Oak, Florida; he joined the Kappa Sigma fraternity, and then a group he refers to as the "hottest rock band" on campus. "I played in a band called the Embers. We played the fraternity and sorority parties. There weren't very many bars in those days, except for one called the Cave, which we played. That was great. And then somebody from the Safari motel in Daytona Beach called." The year was 1963. People, particularly young women, were starting to pay a lot of attention to young rock and rollers. The Safari gig would quickly change the 21-year-old Burris's world view, and not necessarily to the benefit of his higher education.
"They told us we could come play for a week, for two hours a day out on the patio, and we'd get free rooms, free food, and free beer," he says. That was my first introduction into what it was really like to be a rock and roll guitar player. There was plenty of everything. The band left, but I stayed three weeks. I was having too much fun."
After the Safari Burris took a break from FSU and returned to his junior college in New York. A year later, when he was ready to get serious again, he re-enrolled in Tallahassee. The second time around he worked harder on his studies, and on his role in the university's 200-member marching band. "It was such an awesome big band," he enthuses. "We had 25 trombones. It was incredible."
Although he still made his money putting in late nights with bar bands, school work came easier. Burris graduated in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in music education and a major in instrumental music. "I really feel like that's one of the major accomplishments of my life," he says, "to actually have graduated from FSU."
Shortly after accepting his sheepskin, he landed a teaching position at Highland Falls High School in Highland Falls, New York, just minutes from his hometown. Burris taught jazz band, concert band, marching band. The school was in the center of town, and when he took the marching band out to practice, much of the community turned out to watch. Burris would get together after school with his more-accomplished students to score avant-garde movies made by another teacher's film class. He also taught private guitar lessons at a local music store. For a while he continued to play in a band, though he was finding it increasingly difficult to summon the physical energy for all these endeavors.
Burris and Brinkman married soon after he took the job in Highland Falls (they divorced in 1974). By 1969 she had grown tired of the New York winters and persuaded her husband to give up his teaching position and move to South Florida. (He would pursue a master's degree at the University of Miami while she taught high school chorus.) They drove south the same weekend many of their friends (and some of Burris's students) were heading for the musical extravaganza and cultural turning point taking place in a neighboring town, Woodstock. Once settled at UM, Burris plunged into classical guitar, putting in long, focused hours with his instrument, all the while growing more exhausted.
"I felt like I belonged. There were other people there playing classical guitar, too, and practicing four, five, six hours a day. I did that for eighteen months," he recalls. "Those years of practicing and getting really good on an instrument, and loving every minute of it, those are times I'll never forget. I'll always remember that feeling of being totally immersed in an art, by myself. I didn't have to play with a marching band, I didn't have to play with anybody else. It was just me, making good music."
He collected his master's in January of 1971, substituted at various Dade County schools during the spring, and then accepted a job teaching guitar at Beach High, beginning in September. He's been there ever since.
Unfortunately so has his multiple sclerosis, an insidious disease that affects approximately 2.5 million people worldwide. A genetic infirmity for which there is still no cure, MS sneaks up slowly, destroying the linings that protect the nerves, making muscle control unreliable, and in severe cases, eventually impossible. MS can and does kill. Those with the disease have an average life span of twenty years after the first symptoms appear.
A young Burris first noticed his sagging energy in the mid-Sixties. Although doctors wouldn't diagnose his problem until years later, he knew something was seriously wrong. "In '64 I had my first attack," he remembers. "I was in bed for two weeks and had numb spots in my legs." His mystery illness levied a heavy emotional toll. Before robbing him completely of the ability to walk, or even to lift a cup of coffee to his lips, the disease played head games with him. He appeared to have beaten the illness a year or two after that first bout. He would recover, he thought.
But MS does not give up so easily. By 1968 it was back. He began struggling with the marching band, stopping to rest every few blocks. "I was fatigued," he recalls. "I was a great swimmer, but I'd go in the ocean and practically drown." By the spring of 1970, when his condition was finally diagnosed, it had begun to interfere with his guitar playing. By 1971 he needed a cane to walk (he preferred to use a stick his father had cut from a tree), and resigned himself to the fact that he'd never again be able to teach marching band. Beach High principal Solomon Lichter was not concerned about his abilities, and he hired Burris to teach guitar.
"Basically my qualification for a teacher," Lichter says, "was, 'Are you capable and competent and do you care about kids?' I intuitively felt he liked kids, and that he could communicate. So I had no hesitation whatsoever. His condition was never a problem with me." Burris spent the 1971-72 school year teaching six beginning guitar classes per day. He recruited the best players to work out pop and rock tunes after school. He would often sing while the students strummed their guitars.
"I knew I was hired to be a guitar teacher and I did the best I could," Burris remembers. "I had studied classical.... I was very enamored with it, but what was going to be appropriate for the masses? In those days it was Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and whoever else came along that could do a great pop tune.
"After one year I said, 'There's got to be something else.'" There was. With Lichter's blessing the next year Burris was leading a full-scale rock band, with guitarists, vocalists, bassists, drummers, and keyboardists. The students auditioned for the parts. The class took the official title Rock Ensemble and sold donuts to raise money for a public address system.
Under his tutelage the students have mastered, at various times, the complex live performances of entire concept albums including the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Queen's A Night at the Opera, and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (the 1987 performance came complete with a multimedia and laser light show in the high school's auditorium). In the spring of 1997 the class released a professional-caliber, self-recorded CD of original and cover tunes. They recorded the album in the school's own Hi-Tide Recording Studio, the only facility of its kind in the school district.
Burris has pulled off a personal triumph as well. His students often drop by his small, sparsely decorated two-bedroom home to listen to and talk about music, watch movies, and kick back. One current class celebrated Halloween at his house. A senior and her family regularly take him out to dinner. Even years after graduation, former charges visit or call.
"He was like a father to me," 1981 graduate Adam Chester explains. "And he still is. I call him at least once a month."
Although Burris is surprisingly quick to advise against it, several of his students have gone on to pursue careers in music. Chester, who studied music at the University of Southern California and has lived in Los Angeles ever since, has scored songs for a Tim Curry film and two recent network TV movies. Paul Smith, a 1990 alumnus, was the head recording and live-sound engineer for the reggae act Inner Circle. Demetrius Brown from the popular local rock band Manchild is a former ensemble player, as was Ann Curless, of the successful late-Eighties pop singing group Expose.
Eve Nelson, a 1983 graduate now living in New York City, has written songs with artists such as Angela Bofill and Donna Summer, and with celebrated hitmaker Carole Bayer Sager. She recently signed a six-album deal with the Virgin Records subsidiary V2 on behalf of a sixteen-year-old artist named Billy Crawford, for whom she will produce and write. "When I first saw the Rock Ensemble when they came to perform at Nautilus [Middle School in Miami Beach]," Nelson recalls, "it was like a world opening up for me. I had been studying classical piano and I saw these kids get up and sound great.... I never felt like I belonged in the classical world. I said, 'I have to be part of this.' It was a huge, huge part of my growth as a youngster. I would say he's one of the bigger influences in my entire career."
Burris's band room houses several gleaming trophies (some as tall as the students who've earned them) collected this past year from a national music competition known as Musicfest Orlando. Others, from competitions held throughout Florida and around the country, line the walls of nearby rooms. The Miami Beach Senior High School Rock Ensemble and Classical Guitar Ensemble are known nationwide as musical models.
"We've never gotten anything but a superior or first-place ranking," Burris says, beaming.
His tenure has not been entirely trouble-free. In the past detractors within the school district have negatively commented about Burris's deteriorating physical condition and how it affects his ability to instruct. They questioned how he could teach music without picking up the instruments and demonstrating how to use them. They wondered how he could control a roomful of rambunctious teens from a wheelchair. "'Burris's kids are outside the room,'" he mimics, repeating an often heard protest. "'He can't handle the discipline aspect of it.'" Twice Burris has been placed on surplus, the status given to teachers who are considered expendable, who soon will be relocated to another position in the district or let go altogether.
In 1978 Burris says principal Marty Rubens told him he didn't want anyone in a wheelchair on his faculty. "He told me that within two weeks I'd be out of there and I'd be placed at Lindsey Hopkins teaching dance to handicapped kids," Burris says. It wasn't meant as a joke. Thirty angry parents showed up in Rubens's office the day after a TV news report detailed Burris's imminent demise. "They wouldn't leave, and they wouldn't let up." Burris recalls with a smile. "After that he left me alone."
Then in the early Nineties, with declining student enrollment in fine-arts courses in general, Burris was on the chopping block again. But a savior stepped in, in the form of a concerned parent with the ear of the school board.
Shortly thereafter Burris and his Rock Ensemble were invited to perform at a school-district event. Speaking from the podium to hundreds of educators and administrators, deputy superintendent Solomon Stinson (now school board chairman) heaped praise on Burris's students and their teacher. Later he approached Burris in person. "I felt a hand on my shoulder," Burris recollects, "and in a deep Southern drawl, a voice said, 'Doug, it's Solomon Stinson. You don't have to worry about your job anymore. Your job is intact.' It sounded like the voice of God."
"Of course I miss all the things that someone would expect a quadriplegic to miss," Burris says one night after a Classical Guitar Ensemble performance at a Miami Beach hotel. He isn't afraid to talk about his condition, nor does he hide his contempt for the disease that's kept him in a wheelchair for two decades now. When asked how things would have been if he didn't have MS, he says resolutely: "I would have been an even better teacher."
He doesn't dwell on his situation though. He's simply too spirited for that. It's an attribute that hasn't been lost on those who've worked with him or studied under him. "He's just extraordinary as a human being and a teacher," current Beach High principal William Renuart says. "The effect he has on the kids that he works with, the effect on the whole school.... He teaches life. He teaches how to be a mensch."
"Doug is my mentor," says 1981 grad Michael McNamee, now a movie sound engineer who also spends as much as twenty hours per week helping Burris with the Rock Ensemble. "Because of that there is this need in me to repay him for what I found to be my career. Anybody who has been in Rock Ensemble would probably feel the same way. I just felt like there was this area of my life where I had to give something back. He didn't ask for it, I just did it. It's like a family feeling. When you're in Rock Ensemble, you wish it could last the rest of your life, and you know it can't. For me, I'm trying to make that happen."
Of course McNamee realizes the family can't stay together forever. Sooner or later Burris will be gone. At that point the future of the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble will be uncertain. "If it ends there, maybe that's where it ends," he reflects. "Then maybe someone else comes in and tries something else. It's almost like one of those pairs of shoes you can't fill."
But Burris has no plans to vacate those shoes just yet. "I'd like to keep doing it for as long as I'm happy with it," he says. "There are three things that keep me going: number one, the music; number two, the kids and people I deal with; and number three, it's the perfect situation for a person in my condition, to be able to do something that's productive and fun and just seems to fit into the natural scheme of things." Rock and roll.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.