Michael Kiyoi, Instrumental Music Director at San Marcos. | Credit: Courtesy

Being a teacher always has its challenges, which COVID-19 has only exacerbated. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, students are behind academically and socially, and mental health concerns are still rising.

Now, more than ever, it is important to celebrate all teachers, especially those who are pushing their students toward success — and the bounds of education. The Recording Academy and Grammy Museum has a Music Educator Award for just that, and Santa Barbara’s own Michael Kiyoi recently made the 2024 quarterfinals.

Kiyoi, the instrumental music director at San Marcos High School, was chosen last month as one of 212 quarter finalists from more than 2,000 nominations. To advance to the next stage, nominees are asked to submit three videos of their teaching, reflections, and tips. It was quite an involved process, but luckily, Eric Isaacs of EMI Photography who volunteered his talents.

Michael Kiyoi, left, and Dan Garske, who was his teacher and predecessor at San Marcos. | Credit: Courtesy

Dan Garske, former SMHS instrumental music director, described Kiyoi as “a phenomenal musician and person” in one of the video submissions. The two know each other well because not only did Kiyoi succeed Garske, but he also was his student back when he attended San Marcos in the early 2000s. Kiyoi continues many of the cherished traditions from Garske’s era as band director, but has also made sure to keep the program evolving.

“The best educators … are the ones that continue to grow and continue to adapt other people’s ideas into their own,” Kiyoi said. “Education is about sharing things. It’s not about taking something for yourself and hiding it.”

Though he might be too humble to admit it, Kiyoi certainly falls into that category of “best educators.” When he first started out as a teacher after graduating from UCLA with a degree in music education, he taught at La Colina Junior High and San Marcos simultaneously, going back and forth between the two schools multiple times a day.

“Honestly, looking back on it, I do not know how I survived,” he said of the experience.

Eventually, Kiyoi moved over to head San Marcos’s program full-time, devoting hours of extra time to create a space that is safe, creative, and fun for students.

“All of these things you would think would be given, but they’re not always in music programs, or in any class,” he said. “We also work really hard in general just to be better at music [and] be better people.”

Incoming Board Band Booster President Joni Kelly can attest that students flourish under Kiyoi’s leadership. Her son Ethan is in Kiyoi’s jazz ensemble class and plays the drums in San Marcos’s award-winning marching band. She proudly watched him find his “posse” of friends in the band program, which she said is “a direct result of how Michael Kiyoi runs his classroom.” Having seen his impact firsthand, she decided to nominate him for the award.

“He is that teacher,” Kelly said. “[Kiyoi] just accepts them for who they are and who they want to be and focuses on making them into the most successful, best person they can be, whether or not they choose to pursue music.”

In his scarce free time, Kiyoi travels across the country playing professional ultimate Frisbee for the L.A. Aviators. He is a legend in the local Frisbee community, also playing for the SoCal Condors club team and frequently scrimmaging against UCSB’s Black Tide.

Kiyoi carries competitiveness with him from the field to band competitions, where he reminds his students that “it’s fun to be good at something.”

“He has high expectations of the kids, and he runs a tight ship,” Kelly said, but she was sure to mention that it’s “always with kindness and generosity of spirit.”

“Dedicated” is the word that comes to mind when 2022 San Marcos graduate Anna Munoz thinks of Kiyoi. During her four years, she excelled in the band program and even became a drum major.

“It was probably one of the most formative points of my life. I always felt like I had somewhere to go to, and a second home. I don’t think I would be the person I am today without these experiences,” she said. “I love it and I miss it and I don’t think I’ll ever have an opportunity like that ever again.”

Michael Kiyoi with some of his students | Credit: Courtesy

Since Munoz had been borrowing her instrument from the school, she was no longer able to continue playing music during her first year at UC Berkeley. It took a toll on her, but luckily, Kiyoi recently helped her find a more affordable saxophone so she can keep her passion for music alive. “I just love making a beautiful sound for other people to enjoy, and for yourself to enjoy,” she said. “To know you can do that is the best feeling ever.”

Munoz is currently spending her summer at a conservation program in Yosemite, for which Kiyoi wrote her a letter of recommendation.

“Mr. Kiyoi is a person that you want to share both your wins and losses with; he’s one of the first people that come to mind when something good or bad happens, because you know he’s gonna be there for you in either case,” she said.

Munoz’s experience is hardly unique. Throughout the process of creating the Grammy submission videos, Kelly heard many incredible stories of Kiyoi supporting his students both in and out of school. One student, who was homeless during high school, was able to get a scholarship to Westmont College thanks to Kiyoi. That student has since become an elementary school teacher. Another student shared how Kiyoi risked his life during a lockdown to help her best friend get inside his classroom safely. Another student told how Kiyoi took him suit shopping after his father had passed away from cancer.

“For me, it’s not the teaching stuff that’s a challenge; it’s the hardships that students go through that is the real challenge,” Kiyoi said.

Though being in the Grammy Educator Award competition is time-consuming, Kiyoi says that if he makes it to the next round, he will “throw [his] reservations aside and really ramp it up because there is money on the line.”

The band program costs $100,000 to operate yearly, a fraction of which is provided by the school. With the band boosters, Kelly coordinates fundraisers throughout the year to raise the rest, but it requires constant work.

“The grand prize would provide us with 10 percent of the program needs in one shot,” she said.

It’s a waiting game until the semifinalists are announced in September. But Kiyoi certainly won’t be twiddling his thumbs. He’s got Frisbee games to play and band camp to teach, and hopefully, a little time saved for himself.


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