If there was ever a music teacher prodigy, Angela Ammerman might be it.
Ammerman, 31, grew up in Cincinnati with a mother who taught piano. She started on piano at age 3 and was tutoring pint-sized musicians by the time she was in middle school. By the end of high school, she was teaching piano and violin professionally.
Despite being a talented violinist and pianist herself, it was helping other students grow that thrilled her, seeing their progress and the light in their eyes when a complex concept clicked.
Ammerman, now a music teacher at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, was recently named the Virginia Orchestra Director of the Year by the American String Teachers Association. It’s an award she earned for her one-of-a-kind method of teaching music, engaging students who range from the experienced elite to recent immigrants who are picking up an instrument for the first time.
Even as her students take on serious classical works, her lessons always have a hint of goofiness. She describes her high-energy classes as “somewhat chaotic.”
“Every day there’s something new,” Ammerman said.
One recent class began with students grasping drinking straws and holding pennies on top of them — an exercise aimed at helping students practice bow placement. When students are rehearsing or drilling, she’ll start a drawing on the white board, adding an element after they complete each cycle until she completes the picture or figure. It’s a way to take some of the grind out of the repetition of learning music.
“The kids don’t realize they’re learning,” Ammerman said. “I just try to make the class environment really fun. A lot of comedy.”
Vidhi Phadumdeo, a 15-year-old sophomore who has played violin for a half-dozen years, said Ammerman has inspired her to be more passionate about music.
“She’s just really energetic, and she knows how to get us motivated about playing,” Vidhi said. “She gives off this positive vibe, and it’s just impossible to be sad around her.”
Larisa Marian, who now teaches music at two elementary schools in Fairfax County, was a student teacher under Ammerman two years ago as she completed her bachelor’s degree in music education. Marian said just watching Ammerman teach was awe-inspiring, and she strives every day to engage students in the way Ammerman does. Ammerman also runs a camp for high school students aspiring to be music teachers.
“Once the rehearsal started, it was, like, magical,” Marian said. “Every time I observed her conducting a rehearsal, it was like this electrifying energy.”
But a major part of her appeal to many students has little to do with music. It’s about the community she creates within her classroom. The orchestra room — decorated with music posters and a broken cello that students painted and mounted on the wall — has become a sort of second home for many students, who can be found there before and after school.
Marian said she creates a sort of home away from home for orchestra students. She has provided a musical refuge for a student who suffers severe headaches from a traumatic brain injury, because playing the cello seems to dull the pain. And when the student’s family struggled to afford surgery, Ammerman threw her a benefit concert, raising $13,000.
Vidhi said Ammerman’s warmth and enthusiasm have made her like “an adoptive mother” to many students.
“She’s always there for you,” Vidhi said.