Published April 2, 2000, in The Miami Herald
BYLINE: Jasmine Kripalani
Preparing a group of 30 high school musicians for national television is no easy task. But then again, Miami Beach High School’s Rock Ensemble isn’t a typical high school band.
Directed by Doug Burris, the Rock Ensemble will be featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood in a segment to be aired this spring.
Burris’ Rock Ensemble is used to getting its fair share of media attention.
That is partly because Burris, who has multiple sclerosis, teaches music despite being paralyzed from the neck down. And it’s partly because his group of musical teenagers always seems to strut back from competitions carrying the tallest trophies.
In 1993, CNN and MTV aired features on the Rock Ensemble and Burris who teaches his students to pluck strings and perform like rock legends Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. And just last year, the group was invited to perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. This year, the Rock Ensemble is performing songs by The Temptations and Dion.
“I like this type of music. Everybody knows My Girl and Run Around Sue,” said Burris. “Anywhere we perform people end up singing along with us.”
Cameras from CBS Sunday Morning were set to ride along with the group this weekend for the annual MusicFest Orlando competition. While in Orlando, the band will also perform at the Magic Kingdom for Disney Magic Music Days.
“For 21 years, Sunday Morning has presented stories that are uplifting and embody the human spirit,” said CBS spokeswoman Juliet Brenegar. “Doug Burris and the Rock Ensemble are no exception.”
Actually, these students are the exception.
Dismissal at Beach High is at 2:30pm, but for these 30 musicians it’s usually 5:00 or 6:00pm before they leave the school grounds.
Minutes after the dismissal bell rings, instruments take center stage.
The electric guitars start strumming and drums begin to pound to the beat of Nancy Sinatra’s Boots. Casandra Madero, 17, takes the microphone, stands in front of Burris in strappy, blue two-inch platforms and sings: “These boots are made for walkin’, and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”
Casandra, a senior at Miami Beach High, acknowledges she’s not the shy type.
“I’m used to cameras, I’ll be very comfortable,” she said.
In Orlando, the group is entered in the Rock Ensemble and classical guitar categories. Competing against thousands of other young musicians nationwide, Burris’ band will be judged on presentation, sound and creativity.
CBS scouts found out about the group from the father of one of his former students — Edward Villella.
Villella, the artistic director for the Miami City Ballet and who has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning himself, sold the program on the idea of doing a story about his daughter Crista’s music teacher.
“You have a handicapped person in a wheelchair teaching kids music, so people want to know why it works,” explained Burris, 58. “And it works because of my personality and my rapport with the students.” Burris studied music education at Florida State University and the University of Miami. He used to play guitar until the multiple sclerosis started weakening his body in the early 1970s. Even though he was left unable to finger the instruments, he could never let go of his love for music.
He makes sure it’s not just the musically gifted who are part of the Rock Ensemble.
Some students work as engineers performing sound checks. Others are musicians who take on an additional task, like 17-year-old Alana Miller who is a classical guitar student and the band’s photographer.
“Although Mr. Burris can’t physically show you anything, he gives you guidance and has all this patience,” Alana said. “He has inspired me of maybe becoming a teacher.”
Burris, who started teaching at Beach High in 1970, credits his high school music teacher, August Natoli, as his inspiration.
“He got us involved in the jazz band and had an ability to allow musicians to decide for themselves,” said Burris. “You can’t tell someone to be a good musician, it just happens.”
According to CBS, the 8- to 10-minute show is scheduled to air sometime in April or May in its 9:00am. time slot.
“It’s a little early for me most Sundays, but I’ve watched it before,” said Woodley Desire, 19, a senior who will be singing My Girl and Old Days by Chicago. “Every Sunday, beginning in April, I’ll be watching, and then I’ll call everyone I know and scream ‘I am on TV! I’m on TV!'”