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Duerkop shared his love of music

Al Duerkop brought a high level of energy to his classes at the Somerset Elementary School for 23 years.

Al Duerkop's gift in teaching was passing his love of music on to his students.

After 23 years of teaching music at the Somerset Elementary School, Duerkop retired at the end of the 2012-13 school year. In all, he's spent 40 years in different aspects of teaching.

Though he's retiring from teaching, Duerkop plans to stay busy with his music. He plans to spend the summer rewriting a book that he and elementary art teacher Amy Stevens created on teaching handbells to fourth-graders. The handbell project at the elementary school has grown into a hugely popular annual event.

He is planning to continue to sing in the Woodland Chorale in the Luck-Frederic area. He said he's owns 20 musical instruments. He's always been able to play three songs on each instrument to demonstrate them for the students, but he'd like to spend more time perfecting some of those instruments.

Teaching with such a high level of energy can also be demanding. Duerkop said teaching six sections of the same subject each day was an immense challenge. He said he wanted to retire before he couldn't offer that same energy level to each of his class sections. He said it was the students who helped him to maintain his love for teaching.

"We face 20 motivators every hour," he said of his students. "They are saying 'feed me.' You can't ignore those motivators. They are too important to the future."

Duerkop is quick to say that he didn't work in a vacuum and there have been many people who've had input in his music program. He used the handbells as an example. He originally brought them to school as a summer school project. Naomi Belisle, one of the parents, asked why they couldn't become part of the regular music curriculum. When told that there was a significant cost for handbells, Belisle and other parents held fundraisers to get them purchased. Duerkop and fellow music teacher Roger Zolldan were also able to convince school administration that the handbells were a needed step in music curriculum, to get the rest of the needed funding.

"It made sense with the curriculum to solidify learning from elementary music into the (middle school) band program and more advanced music-ready skills," Duerkop said.

Working with large classes and preparing them for school programs was one of the yearly assignments for Duerkop. He compared this project to coaching, because he had to get every student in the classrooms ready to perform on the day of their program.

"This is teamwork. There are no bench sitters," he said of the programs. He said the students "are pretty nervous. They can't hide behind anybody. We get them over that by preparing."

In retirement, Duerkop said he would love to be a substitute music teacher. He said he's already promised his fourth grade students that he will visit next year to continue another of his long-running stories, "The Grand Staff Campground." It's another idea he'd like to turn into a book or a video. It's one of the many stories he used to help personalize music for students.

The hunger to learn new music still burns in Duerkop. He said he's taken up jazz piano. He said it reminds him of a saying he learned from his piano teacher. The saying went "music is enough for a lifetime, a lifetime is not enough for music."

It reflects the energy that Duerkop has, and will continue to put into music.

"My quip line is that I get to sing and play all day. That's pretty sweet," Duerkop said. "Inhale air, exhale song. That's pretty much my life."

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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