For more than a decade, his decisions affected music education in the state.
Rusty Briel also helped advance the orchestra program in Center Grove schools from 1996 to 2000, using his teaching methods and views on music education to attract students to the craft.
Earlier this month he received an award from the Indiana State School Music Association in recognition of his 15 years as the association’s executive director, until 2015.
The day after he received his award, alumni from the schools where he taught, including Center Grove, joined their former director for one last jam session to celebrate. They played music that was reminiscent of his time in Indiana, pieces that bands he directed competed with in advanced ISSMA competition.
“What struck me is how many different people he touched,” said Andy Blough, a Center Grove alumni. “I could see them in a line, my elementary school principal, my wife, one of her instructors in college.”
Briel was raised in Evansville and attended schools there through college.
He began playing instruments in ninth grade. He scoured newspaper classified advertisements to see if he could score a deal on an instrument he didn’t know how to play. He then taught himself how to play each instrument he bought.
He began his teaching career in Evansville. He moved to the Center Grove area in 1996 to become the school district’s orchestra teacher, teaching both middle school and high school students that genre of music.
Center Grove was the last school district he taught for, before taking the top position for ISSMA. He retired from ISSMA but now teaches at Harrison Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Teaching teenagers how to play instruments and harness what a music education could do for them became his career goal.
“I was planning on becoming a band director,” he said.
For 37 years he has led junior high and high school students to music, mostly by being their band director and teacher.
Some of his students described him as the best teacher they ever had.
Briel never got angry in the classroom, he never ordered students around and was an inspiration to everyone he taught, said Alyson Murphy, a Center Grove alumni.
“Instead of him being mad or upset, he was encouraging. I remember him turning something negative into a positive lesson,” she said.
During his tenure as Center Grove’s orchestra director he helped to grow the program.
Thomas Dirks, former Center Grove band director, said Briel was willing to work with each student individually to make sure that the group as a whole sounded good. His leadership skills are why students wanted to enroll in orchestra, Dirks said.
“It’s just the quality of his teaching,” Dirks said. “He made them feel like they were going some place.”
Then he took the executive director position at ISSMA, where he planned events and helped with music education across the state. He said his No. 1 goal was to make sure that people knew that music was educational and curriculum based. He wanted high school audiences to not just be entertained but for students to learn something from the experience.
“I wanted to make sure that musical education was intact and not just performance (based),” Briel said.
Most of his work touched students beyond the music classroom.
Students who no longer consider themselves musicians remember their years with him fondly, learning lessons that have carried them in other careers and in some cases other parts of the country.
Part of what makes him a superior music teacher is how he was able to reach students, said Rebecca Yunker, a Center Grove alumni.
He would draw figures on the chalkboard to describe how a sound would look. He also would verbalize the notes students were supposed to be playing with their instruments, she said.
His class was one of her favorites and looking forward to orchestra class helped her transition to middle school, Yunker said.
“Learning from him was very easy,” she said. “You knew what he wanted, and he taught very well.”
Katy Briel grew up watching her father teach and direct students, inspiring her to become a band director and music teacher herself. She is now the band director at Clark-Pleasant Middle School and has had her father as a guest teacher in her classrooms.
Her students always pick up and learn something new from him, she said.
“It could be something I told my students for years,” she said, “but they were engaged in a different way.”