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The Music Man of Upper Darby

Brad Schoener (1962-2009)

Here is the story of one of my cousins who was a true inspiration to those around him and everyone he met. He had a positive impact on the lives of countless students with his passion for music and his desire to share it with others.

Brad Stewart Schoener was born in Queens, NY on 29 September 1962.

Brad graduated from Lansdowne-Aldan High School and earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Temple University in 1984. He taught for eight years at Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, PA, on the edge of West Philadelphia, where he would parade up and down the halls playing the tuba, trombone and other instruments to gain student interest in the band. He would then switch to teaching in three elementary schools, where the bands, with about 600 students, tripled in size after he started working with them.

Brad (L) and I (R) and his grandfather in days gone by

Brad worked under less than desirable conditions, as none of the schools had a separate band room. He held practices wherever he could find space, some of them did not have room for chairs or time to put them up and take them down. Over the years, he taught in a closet, the hallway, the principal's office, and a cramped classroom trailer. He bought and repaired used instruments for students and secured three grants to buy 34 new instruments.

"He has such a love, a passion for teaching. He is the Pied Piper of our music program," Upper Darby Schools Superintendent Joseph Galli once said.

Brad performed with several local bands. His main instrument was the trumpet but he also played flute, baritone saxophone, the blues harp and many others. In the 1980s, he taught himself the bagpipe and one summer he played for change on the streets of Center City Philadelphia. There did not seem to be a musical instrument he could not master. Brad would perform on bagpipes in full Scottish regalia for the annual Philadelphia Distance Run.

He formed an intergenerational band at his church, Westminster Presbyterian, to encourage "young and old to come together to glorify the Lord with music."

In 1999 Brad organized a "mega band" of over 800 musicians from the Upper Darby School District that included students, teachers and parents to play during a Philadelphia Phillies game at Veteran's Stadium, an accomplishment of which he was particularly proud.

Brad earned many awards and accomplishments as both a teacher and a professional musician. He was honored by the Pennsylvania Senate and the Pennsylvania Recyclers Association in 2004 for composing “Reduce, Re-use and Recycle” to celebrate the students' recycling efforts in song. He was nationally honored in 2007 when he received the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation National Teacher of the Year Award, presented to him at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He was recognized for his commitment to teaching music despite inadequate facilities and skimpy budgets. "All three of my schools are in the lower socio-economic level," Brad said. "Fifty to 85 percent of the students receive free lunches and most of them live" in housing subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He continued: "Many students sign up for band, but their parents can't afford to rent, let alone buy, an instrument. Without the grants, some students would not be playing."

He was awarded the 2008 Butler-Cooley Excellence in Teaching Award by the Turnaround Music Association which recognizes teachers who have changed the lives of students and communities where they teach.

When not at school, Brad was a composer and freelance musician. He created hundreds of arrangements and compositions for young bands, produced them and began Schoener Custom Music. He was also a Scout Master for Troop 149 in West Chester.

In 2004, Brad was diagnosed with stage 4 leiomyosarcoma, a rare, soft-tissue cancer that attacks the colon, liver and pancreas. He was given 2 to 3 months to live. Despite two major and three minor surgeries and three years of chemotherapy, he did not let it stop him from doing what he loved.

On an early morning walk one Sunday shortly after his diagnosis, he had an epiphany.

"A thought crossed my mind: I don't think God is finished with me," he recalled. He then went to church, where the pastor said in his sermon, "you've got work to do; you're not finished yet." Brad said, "Chills ran down my spine."

During his tenure as a teacher, he had accumulated tons of sick leave since he never missed a day of work. As his illness progressed, he was encouraged to take some time off and rest whenever he needed to. Brad would respond that “My life is about my kids and the music I inspire in them. And nothing should interrupt this.”

Other than recovering from surgeries and taking off Friday afternoons for treatments, Brad missed only one day of school after his diagnosis. He would often lead skiing, caving or rock-climbing scouting trips the same day as his chemotherapy.

He did have to stop performing with numerous professional groups because sometimes when he blew his trumpet, he would black or "gray" out.

For most of his adult life, Brad sported long hair that ran down his back. When he learned that he would lose it from chemotherapy, he decided to shave his head and use it as a learning tool. If a student played a difficult scale or drummed a complicated piece, then he or she could sign the back of Brad's head.

Brad would pass away at his home on 19 March 2009 at the age of 46.

The Brad Schoener Memorial Fund was created in 2013 with three goals:

  1. provide lessons for talented students who may not be able to afford them

  2. provide instruments for all elementary students who have the desire to learn

  3. establish a summer music camp for elementary students

His legacy of caring and compassion would live on; a true inspiration to all.

Family Portrait: Brad's mother Barbara, Brad, and his grandfather Abner (February 1978)


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