Hitting a High Point

Annie Ray won the Grammy Music Educator of the Year Award – but her greatest reward comes from connecting with students.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Annie Ray
Annie Ray ('17)

When Annie Ray ('17) first received an email in 2021 saying she had been nominated for the Grammy Music Educator of the Year, she thought it was a phishing attempt.

She didn't make the finals two years ago, but she made the top 10 in 2023. She found out she won when she received a call from Harvey Mason Jr., the CEO of the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammys.

Ray, who teaches music at Annandale High School in Virginia, was at her house -- with her girls, then 2 ½ years old and 5 months old, right beside her.

"He was like, 'Oh, your girls sound so excited in the background!'" she says. "I was like, 'Well, actually, they're having a meltdown right now.' I went back to momming, doing dinner, with all these things in my head and I was like, 'What just happened?'"

The award is well-earned. Ray has received national attention, including an article in The Washington Post that went viral, for her work in the Washington, D.C., suburb. She formed the Crescendo Orchestra, made up of students with intellectual disabilities, and a parent orchestra in which parents perform along with their students. She also teaches four other music classes and makes sure all of her students --  who represent 66 countries -- have an opportunity to play.

"This is the students' award," she says. "They mean more to me than they'll ever know. Because I keep on saying if I can change one kid's life, then I've done my job."

Ray got to attend music's biggest night in February. During commercial breaks at the ceremony, she met celebrities and snapped pictures with them.

"Taylor Swift threw her arms around me when they told her who I was. Meryl Streep specifically said a music educator changed her life, and that will forever resonate and stick with me," she says. "Billie Eilish made a video for my students and her brother Finneas invited me out to a future concert. SZA was very kind. Victoria Monét, who won new artist of the year -- she and I had a great conversation since we both have littles. And then, Oprah! It felt like I was having an interview moment with her, where she kept asking me questions, and she seemed genuinely interested and gave me a big hug."

Annie Ray at the Merit Awards

Ray's educator honor was presented at the Special Merit Awards, which took place the day before. She met K'naan, the artist who won the best song for social change Grammy for Refugee. She told him his song resonated with her because it is about her school.

"Everyone's talking about Crescendo," she says. "But it's just a portion of our program. We meet everyone where they're at -- whether you are a refugee, whether you're an English language learner, whether you're a student with significant, severe disabilities, whether you're just starting to play or an advanced player, whether you're a parent or a caregiver."

Her husband Irving Ray ('12 M.M., '17 D.M.A.) -- a member of the prestigious Pershing's Own Army Band -- is an example of how public school music education can transform lives.

"He comes from a difficult background, and a music educator is the only reason he is where he is today. That's because someone cared and pushed him and sat with him and met him where he was at. And my students don't know this, but every day I look at my students, and I see my husband's story is in a lot of them. It's like, 'He was you and someone helped him.'"

Ray is eager to acknowledge help she receives from others. The Parent Orchestra was the idea of Brian Coatney in Wylie ISD. Crescendo Orchestra was inspired by the Giving Bach and United Sound programs, and she is thankful to String Rise and Instruments in the Attic for providing instruments and instructional tools.

The Grammys gave her an honorarium, as well as $10,000, which she will use to purchase cellos for the school.

"I'm very honored to represent our Mean Green College of Music, " she says. "But it's definitely been a whirlwind."

Here are UNT's winners from the 2024 Grammys:

  • Rapper Lecrae ('02) won two awards, one for best contemporary Christian music album, Church Clothes 4, and the other for best contemporary Christian music performance/song, "Your Power."
  • Soprano Latonia Moore, who attended UNT in the 1990s, won for best opera recording for Terence Blanchard's Champion, in which she was a principal soloist. Nathan Carlisle ('06) also was in the cast.
  • Roomful of Teeth, which includes Thann Scoggin ('04, '07 M.S.) and Cameron Beauchamp, who attended UNT from 1998 to 2008, won for best chamber music/small ensemble performance, Rough Magic.
  • Frank Greene, who studied at UNT from 1984 to 1987, played trumpet on Basie Swings the Blues, which won best large jazz ensemble album for The Count Basie Orchestra.
  • Two alumni – flutist Sarah Schettler ('98 M.M., '99 M.M.) and bassist William Schettler ('99) – play in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which won the award for best regional roots music album, Live: Orpheum Theater NOLA.
  • Percussionist Sean McDoniel ('99) performed on Some Like it Hot, which won best musical theater album.

Other alumni who worked on Grammy-nominated projects included:

  • David Portillo ('05 M.M.) was nominated for best opera recording for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's The Lord of Cries.
  • Dave Pietro ('00 M.M.) and Rob Wilkerson ('00 M.M.), of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, performed on Dynamic Maximum Tension, which was nominated for best large jazz ensemble album.
  • A song by Tobe Nwigwe, who attended from 2005 to 2009, and his wife, Fat Nwigwe, is included on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Music From and Inspired By, which was nominated for best compilation soundtrack for visual media.
  • Shara Nova ('98) penned a pair of songs included on Austin ensemble Conspirare's nominated album The House of Belonging, and three tracks on Carols After a Plague, by Philadelphia-based choir The Crossing. The works received nods in the best choral performance category.