The Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble is a storied local institution.
Founded in September 1972, this program has allowed student musicians to travel the country and the world, playing as far away as Chicago and New York, as well as Japan in 2001. The ensemble has won award after award, even receiving a plaque of commendation from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1999.
And behind it all is Doug Burris, a music teacher who arrived at Beach High four decades ago with a simple idea: Set up an after-school guitar group. And thanks to an understanding principal, Dr. Solomon Lichter, the teacher and his pupils were even allowed to focus on rock music.
That all happened one year after Burris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
At this point in his illness, Burris is physically incapacitated, a quadriplegic who needs assistance every day of his life. But after speaking with him for even a brief period of time, it's surprising when he has to ask for help to drink some water — because though his body is not responsive, his voice booms across the room. And it's obvious he hasn't lost any of his legendary will and passion.
That irrepressible drive and energy has always been the engine behind the consistently successful Rock Ensemble program. And over the years, the local music scene has been indelibly marked by some of Miami Beach Senior High's most talented graduates.
A shortlist of notable alumni includes Rachel Goodrich, Fernando Perdomo of Forward Motion Records, all three members of power-pop trio Jacobs Ladder, Roger Houdaille and the rest of Ex Norwegian, Deaf Poets' Sean Wouters and Nicolas Espinosa, Exposé's Ann Curless, television composer Eve Nelson of Nelson-O'Reilly Productions, singer-songwriter and children's musician Adam Chester, and self-described "orchestral urban composer" David Chesky.
Perdomo considers Burris to be his second father. Oren Maisner of Jacobs Ladder says he is "definitely one of the best teachers I've ever had," and Sean Wouters insists that "he will always be part of our music."
And indeed, Burris's musical impact on young artists is monumental. But as Houdaille points out, his role goes far beyond that of the average music instructor. He is someone who regularly changes the course of young people's lives. It's often repeated by pupils, parents, and others: If it weren't for the Rock Ensemble, many kids would never have finished high school.
In a 2000 CBS Morning Show feature about Burris and the Rock Ensemble, particular attention was paid to the story of Blaze "DJ" Gerrard. A failing student, DJ was ready to drop out until Burris invited him to join the Rock Ensemble as a sound engineer. Two years later, he went off to college.
Speaking with Burris about the Rock Ensemble is like asking an overly critical uncle about his niece or nephew. One moment, he's complaining about how a couple of kids can ruin an entire class's chemistry. The next, he's beaming about a current student who looks and sounds exactly like Robert Plant. But whether he's handing out criticism or compliments, it's obvious that Burris loves his students unconditionally. And they love him back.
For this teacher, it has always been about the music and the kids. "Some people ask, 'How does this guy do it? He's a quadriplegic. What makes him do what he does?'" Burris explains. "And I have to say it's the music. I like to hear good music, especially rock music or jazz-rock music. I love watching the kids learn to play."
And that true, honest passion is what his students respect most. So even when Burris is forced to make tough, touchy decisions, such as removing a kid from the mix if he or she can't cut it, the group's members understand. They're part of the Rock Ensemble for a reason, not just because they're fulfilling some school obligation.
"Doug Burris kicked me out, threw me back in, and then kicked me out again," Rachel Goodrich recalls. "[But] I always thought of him as a strong individual who has raised hope for many."
In fact, Burris's relationship with his students is so close that he hires them to be his personal helpers for needs that demand rotating shifts to cover 24 hours of care. And they do it out of pure affection. As Perdomo says, "It's like helping out a family member."
This deep respect between Burris and his pupils allows him to manage a classroom full of kids from the seat of his wheelchair. But for him, it goes beyond just mutual esteem. Asked what he does that allows students to complete his program and then become successful in an impossibly difficult career field, he responds simply, "I bring them legitimacy."
This Saturday, Miami Beach Senior High and a cast of musical all-stars will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Rock Ensemble with an epic four-hour concert. It will be a celebration of every kid who ever picked up an instrument at the school. But more pointedly, it'll be a tribute to one man and his decades of dedication to young musicians, education, and rock 'n' roll — because this performance will mark the end of Doug Burris's career as an educator.
His retirement will leave a gaping hole in the school's music program. And he doesn't plan on playing part-time teacher. "When I leave, I leave," he says. "I don't want to step on the toes of the new teacher. I did my thing. And thank God they didn't abandon the program."
Taking place in the school's auditorium, the concert will quite literally be the culmination of a lifetime's worth of work as eight generations of Burris's pupils take the stage to play all of the classic rock songs he helped them master year after year. The 70-year-old teacher will finally get to see all of his kids play together. "If I planted the seed, I want to see the plant," he muses.
And there will be a lot to see, which is the biggest testament to his success. But while Burris sees his students as seeds he planted over time, the truth is that the seed has always been the teacher himself.