All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for May 2003

Teacher, students use music to cross 'generation abyss'

May 15, 2003
Ben Torter
Miami Herald

Despite being paralyzed from the neck down from multiple sclerosis, Doug Burris, a Miami Beach High music teacher and director of the school's Rock Ensemble for more than 30 years, still communicates his love of music to students Brian Hernandez, left, and Ian Rodriguez.

When Doug Burris started the Miami Beach High School Rock Ensemble in 1972, Chuck Berry scored a chart-topping hit with My Ding-a-Ling, Led Zeppelin had just released its epic Stairway To Heaven, and David Bowie was singing about Ziggy Stardust.

The generation gap was not a huge divide for Burris, who was 30 at the time, and his students. They were into the same music, and they even dressed alike.

Fast-forward to the present: 50 Cents Get Rich or Die Tryin is the No. 1 album, and Sean Paul's Get Busy is the top single. And, says Burris, now 61, "the generation gap has become a generation abyss."

"Each year, the older I get, the more the kids have stayed the same," he adds. "Today the kids are too into this rap and hardcore nonsense."

Despite the "abyss," not to mention a degenerative condition of multiple sclerosis that has left him paralyzed below the neck, Burris continues to lead the Miami Beach High Rock Ensemble. Last month the outfit traveled to the New York Music Festival, an annual competition of high school bands and choruses held at the College of Staten Island, and picked up a gold medal and first-place award.

Burris, who grew up listening to Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and George Frideric Handel, knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue a music career.

After graduating with a master's in music education from the University of Miami in 1971, he was hired to teach guitar at Beach High.

Within a few months he had the idea for a high school rock ensemble. Though rock music was a lightning rod for controversy, he had no problem selling the idea to the school's principal at the time, Dr. Solomon Lichter.

"He [was] a very progressive guy," Burris says of Lichter, who is now retired.

In 1972, the rock ensemble officially became a class at Beach High, and since then the group has won numerous awards and has been featured on MTV, CNN and CBS' Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood, and traveled to gigs all over the country.

Burris recalls some of the ensemble's more memorable shows like a proud father.

"In '87 we did Pink Floyds Dark Side of the Moon, which to me is mind-blowing," he says. That show featured fog, laser lights and rear-projection screens. "You don't see that stuff in high school," Burris notes.

At other times, the ensemble has performed Queen's A Night At the Opera album in its entirety, and taken on the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- complete with band members dressed as characters on the album cover.

The highlight so far came in 1999, when the rock ensemble performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. That gig came about after Burris had an inspiration.

'I woke up at four o'clock in the morning and said, 'I think we need to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,' " Burris said. He sent a heartfelt pitch to the Hall, complete with copies of the ensemble's recordings and newspaper articles from over the years.

Though his expectations were low, he soon received a telephone call from the Hall's director.

"She said, 'You know Mr. Burris, we're very excited about what you're doing and we'd love to have you perform here," Burris recalls. 'I was like, 'Wow.' "

A memento of that show hangs in the ensemble practice room, a plaque which reads: "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum commends the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble for Rockin the Planet since 1972."

"Thats one of my most valued possessions," Burris says.

It's that sort of passion and determination that makes Burris a favorite among his students.

The respect is enhanced by Burris' multiple sclerosis, for which he was first diagnosed in 1970. In the 30-plus years since, he has lost the use of his legs and arms, so Burris can only describe -- rather than demonstrate -- to his students how he wants them to perform.

"In a class of 35 students at least one person will understand," he says. "So that person becomes the teacher."

The method is effective, says senior Oren Maisner, a singer with the ensemble: "Mr. Burris has taught me to keep my ears open and to be a perfectionist with anything and everything I'm presenting to an audience."

Once the group has gotten the basic idea, he fine-tunes the performance with constructive criticism. The 14-member ensemble's current set list includes Lauryn Hill's Doo Wop (This Thing), The Police's Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, Sheryl Crows Steve McQueen, UB40s Red, Red, Wine and Madonnas La Isla Bonita.

When they get it right, the rewards are priceless, says Michael McNamee, a member of the 1981 ensemble and its current sound technician and assistant. "There have been times that the song was mediocre," McNamee says, "but the performance was so incredible that Burris [was] just crying in his chair, tears of joy just rolling down his face."
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