He Proves That Teachers Can Rock

May 13, 2007 Sunday FINAL EDITION The Miami Herald


Although the fashion has changed from bell-bottoms to bare midriffs, Miami Beach High’s Rock Ensemble, now in its 35th year, continues to inspire students.


Bell-bottoms and denim shirts were the fashion. Don McLean’s American Pie and Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Saw Your Face were among the songs blaring from eight-track players.

The year was 1972.

And in Miami Beach a daring, mustached music teacher created a high school rock band and turned it into a class. At the time, some teachers dismissed his efforts.

”It’s just rock and roll, not legitimate music,” is what Doug Burris recalls of his colleagues’ sentiments at the time.

”The tide turned,” Burris adds, “and we packed the auditorium at Beach High in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

Now in its 35th year, the Miami Beach High Rock Ensemble will perform a 19-song set at its commemorative concert Friday at the 700-seat Lincoln Theatre. And they plan to pack the house again, theater manager Norman Litz said.

In all, an estimated 600 students have participated in the rock ensemble. Burris, now 65, turned isolated and insecure high school students into confident, social leaders.

Among them is Isaac Salver, 48, now a member of the Bay Harbor Islands town council. Salver was part of the ensemble in 1975 and remembers performing Del Shannon’s Runaway at the North Beach Bandshell on 73rd Street and Collins Avenue.

”Mr. Burris was extremely influential in my development as an adult. He was the most memorable and most important teacher ever during the educational process that I went through,” Salver said. “And I think he’s had that same impact on everyone who went through his program.”

Over time, Burris’ multiple sclerosis has interfered with his mobility.

At first, he says, ”I only used the wheelchair to go long distances. I would sit on the edge of the table. I could wheel myself around,” he said. “Gradually I spent more time in the chair.”

Burris is now paralyzed from the neck down. But to the students, it never made much of a difference.

”He’s a phenomenal human being,” says Adam Chester, who graduated in 1981 and went on to pursue a musical career. In March, he conducted the 68-member Brooklyn Youth Chorus for Elton John’s 60th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden.

”He taught me to never think twice about your shortcomings,” Chester said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “I mean, here’s a guy who’s completely handicapped and it doesn’t stop him at all. He’s a beacon of inspiration, not because he’s handicapped but because he’s passionate about what he does.”

Michael Karukin says he was ”short and stocky” when he took part in the ensemble in 1973. Now 49, he’s a scientist for a drug company.

”I was their first roadie,” he said. “I couldn’t tune a guitar if my life depended on it, which is still true today. But without [the rock ensemble] I would have been more isolated than I was. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school.”

Other former rock ensemble members include David Chesky, class of 1973, who now runs his own jazz record label, and singer Ann Curless, class of 1982, former member of the late-eighties pop band Exposé.

Guitarist Fernando Perdomo, 26, graduated in 1998. He has performed for top Latin artists including Christian Castro, Soraya and Grammy winner Jorge Moreno, and currently serves as musical director for Puerto Rican singer Noelia. He describes Burris as a mentor even today.

”Burris proved to me that it could be a career and put me in the right direction. He gave me a four-year head start into being a professional musician,” he said. “I wasn’t just a guitar player. I was a total musician because he introduced me to recording and songwriting.”

Current members of the ensemble are well-aware of the legacy.

”You’re upholding the group’s name and reputation,” said singer Matthew Kurz, a senior. “It’s not just about yourself.”