Conackamack music teacher to make most of honor

Conackamack music teacher and her students to benefit from fellowship
Posted on 09/13/2022
This is the image for the news article titled Conackamack music teacher and her students to benefit from fellowshipPiscataway Township Schools music teacher Shamie Royston was thrilled when she found out last May that she was selected to be the first recipient of a fellowship from the prestigious Berklee College of Music and the Ucross Foundation.

But she’s even more excited to know she’s not the only winner. This honor will also enrich her students at Conackamack Middle School.

“I think it will benefit me and my students and the district,” Royston said. “Whatever I get from this while I’m there, I know I’m going to relay it back to my kids and have it be beneficial to them, too. Even though I won’t be with them for a while, it will overall help the program.

“I’m just super excited. I feel very honored that the district allowed me the time to do this.”

Royston was awarded the inaugural Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice Partnership at Ucross, whose goal is to promote equity in the field of jazz. As the first awardee, Royston will receive a two-week residency at Ucross with uninterrupted time to compose and create at its ranch in northern Wyoming. The residency begins on Oct. 10. She also receives a $2,000 stipend.

music teacher conducting

“This fellowship will give Shamie much deserved time to create and compose – and nurture her own musicianship,” said Rebekah Sterlacci, the district’s Supervisor of Visual and Performing
Arts. “This is so important for a music educator. I know this experience will directly transfer to Shamie’s students as she shares her experiences and music with them – showing our students what is possible through a career in the arts.”

Royston was chosen for the fellowship through her work as a jazz pianist and composer. But her art is forever intertwined with her day job as a music educator. She has taught for 15 years at all levels from elementary school to teaching at Berklee. She has taught in Piscataway for six years and is the band and general music teacher at Conackamack.

“As a teacher, my expectations for my kids are so high, because I’m out there performing and composing,” Royston said. “Sometimes as a K through 12 teacher, you get used to a certain sound because they’re students. But my performing keeps my ears open to where I’m pushing for them to do THAT sound. ‘No, it doesn’t sound right; we’ve got to make it sound right!’ Instead of saying, ‘Oh, it’s just middle school, that’s just how they sound.’

“I will NEVER say that.”

Sterlacci said that Royston is energetic and encouraging in the classroom and builds strong relationships with students and their families.

“Her students play at an extremely high level – and this is due to Shamie’s belief that her students can achieve anything,” she said. “Shamie is a truly inspiring music educator and we are so fortunate to have her on our team.”

teacher and student

Royston said the fact that the fellowship is meant to promote equity is very important to her. She said it is rare to find African-American women in jazz who are not singers.

“I always get questions like, ‘How do you tour if you’re a mother?’” Royston said. “Questions that you wouldn’t think would arise, but young women are looking at that. Especially in jazz, it’s been so heavily male dominant, even when we look at the history. It is changing, but this gives me another platform to be a light or give guidance to those who are interested in what I’m doing.”

Royston has been hailed by JazzTimes as “a vigorous, versatile pianist,” and she performs around the New York and New Jersey area. Reviewing Royston’s album “Beautiful Liar,” jazz critic Kevin Whitehead described her music as a “straight-ahead, tuneful, hard-swinging brand of jazz that’s always in style,” adding that her “composing really stamps her music.”

Royston said she’s not sure what she will work on during her two-week residency at Ucross, but that she is “just going to let it flow.” She has already started working on a big-band composition that would be accessible to middle school musicians – again tying her role as a composer together with her work as a teacher.

“My overall goal is not for everybody in my class to be a musician, but just for them to have the joy of music,” she said. “I want them to understand there is joy in whatever they listen to, in all kinds of music.”