Not country — but a great teacher: Kayla Werlin of Hadley wins Country Music Association Award as a top music instructor 

  • Kayla Werlin with some of her Longmeadow High School singers at St. George Cathedral in Springfield. The Hadley resident has been recognized by the Country Music Association as one of the top public school music teachers in the country. Photo courtesy Kayla Werlin

  • Werlin with some of her music students during a performance a few years ago on the front steps of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo courtesy Kayla Werlin

  • Werlin leads Longmeadow High School singers at a March 5 performance in Boston at the Massachusetts Music Educators Association annual conference. It was their last live performance before the COVID-19 outbreak.  Photo courtesy Kayla Werlin

  • Werlin has taught music and directed vocal music programs at Longmeadow High School since 1999 and has also been involved with a number of other music groups in the Valley.  Photo courtesy Kayla Werlin

Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2020 4:58:19 PM

Country music might not be Kayla Werlin’s area of expertise. But that hasn’t stopped the Country Music Association (CMA), the trade organization formed in 1958 to promote country music, from recognizing Werlin this year as one of the top public school music teachers in the nation.

Werlin, who lives in Hadley and chairs the Music Department of Longmeadow High School, is one of 30 music teachers to win a 2020 National Music Teacher of Excellence Award from the Country Music Association Foundation. That’s the philanthropic arm of the CMA, which provides grants to help promote music education.

The CMA awards recognize 20 music teachers in Tennessee and 10 in other states across the country. This year, Werlin is the only music teacher from Massachusetts to receive the award.

“I’m very honored,” Werlin said during a recent call to her home in Hadley, where she — like so many other teachers — is now trying to devise ways to work with her students online, with schools shut because of the COVID-19 outbreak. “Country music is not something I know a lot about, but the [CMA] program is all about giving back, and that’s wonderful.”

Werlin, who has taught at Longmeadow High since 1999 and directs the school’s vocal music programs, says her CMA Award includes two $2,500 grants — one for the school and one for her, for professional development and personal expenses. She’s planning to donate her share to the school to fill various needs, such as helping students purchase instruments, and to other school districts that also need help with their music programs.

According to a statement from the CMA, the organization has awarded $700,000 to public school music teachers in the five years of the program. “Music education has proven to be an effective and invaluable tool for academic achievement and social development, yet we consistently hear that programs are not properly supported,” said Tiffany Kerns, the CMA Foundation executive director.

“Our school and administration have been really good about recognizing the importance of music education for kids, but there are always needs that crop up,” added Werlin, who leads three different vocal ensembles at Longmeadow High.

She first heard of the CMA Award program last year when a music teacher she knows from South Dakota won one of the awards. She decided to apply herself, a process that included getting letters of recommendation from Longmeadow High’s principal and a parent of a student, and uploading a videotaped class lesson. She also wrote essays outlining her teaching philosophy, her goals as an instructor, her personal approach to music and her past work as a choral director.

Her recent notice from the CMA of her award came with what Werlin called “a sweet gift box” that included a mug and a handwritten letter from one of the organization’s leaders, a letter she says made it clear to her that officials had carefully reviewed what she’d written on her application.

“I remember writing that one my greatest joys in teaching is that my students find their voices literally and figuratively,” Werlin said, “and that’s what [the CMA letter] touched on. Nothing is more important to me than students finding their voices and learning to express themselves in music.”

A new era for teaching

It’s not the first time Werlin, who began teaching at Longmeadow Middle School in 1995, has won awards for her work. Married to Wayne Abercrombie, a conductor and the former director of choral music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she’s also a past president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), and some of her Longmeadow High choirs have performed in other parts of the U.S. and in Europe.

Werlin is also a past director of Mak’hela, the Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, and she currently sings in Cantabile, an a capella chamber group that specializes in Renaissance-era music.

These days she’s focused on a new assignment that many teachers are grappling with: figuring out how to work with her students remotely in the era of COVID-19. “This is new for me,” she said.

One idea is for students to learn and practice their parts of new choir arrangements at home, then record them digitally and send them to her; from there, she’ll slowly stitch together the parts into a whole.

“We expect our students to continue working at home — not to do soul-crushing or busy work, but to keep involved in music,” said Werlin. “I need to find ways to keep them singing.”

From there the project could be expanded to include video of each individual singer performing his or her part, with all those images then uploaded and synchronized together and presented on one screen in what’s become known in recent years as a “virtual choir.”

“These are very strange times, but music is something that can still bring us together,” Werlin noted.

Her hope is that if the worst problems of the virus are dealt with by late spring, her students might be able to reconvene for some public concerts, hopefully with this new music having been previously worked out and rehearsed remotely. If not, perhaps a virtual performance can be streamed for the public, she said: “We would like to offer something for the community, to be able to offer some solace.”

And if fortune allows, Werlin is also scheduled to join the other teachers who have received the CMA Award in Nashville, Tennessee on May 5, in a ceremony hosted by country music singer and songwriter Kelsea Ballerini. “We can always hope for better times,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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