Steffen Kuehn, center, is congratulated by his band students at All Saints School in Hayward three days after his Pacific Mambo Orchestra won a Grammy Award.
On Jan. 26, Steffen Kuehn was on stage at the Grammy Awards, hoisting the trophy, sharing the spotlight with Christian Tumalan, as their Pacific Mambo Orchestra received the award for Best Tropical Latin Album.
Their grass-roots album, titled "Pacific Mambo Orchestra," was victorious over four others, which were represented by big-name music companies.
Three days later, he was back at All Saints School in Hayward, where students surprised their band director with a homemade sign congratulating him on the big win.
"I teared up," he said. "That was so sweet."
The show of love from his students moved their teacher, who is in his 15th year with MUSE Instrumental Programs, which provides music programs to private and public schools in the Bay Area and Portland, Oregon.
As regional director for the Bay Area, he hires teachers and organizes the big events, such as the recent East Bay Concert at Bishop O'Dowd High School. Twenty-two schools in the Bay Area take part in MUSE programs.
In addition, Kuehn works with the high brass and on jazz improv in the music program at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward.
While life has changed for Kuehn, who with, Tumalan co-directs the 19-member orchestra founded in 2010, his commitment to his students has not.
"The kids are very special to me," he said. "They're our future, in music and everything else."
He has seen the benefits of music in students' lives. "Kids with music are just more balanced," he said. "They're better students."
"I see it as my responsibility to pay it forward," he said. "I had great teachers who inspired me," adding that he would be grateful to be "the inspiration for just one kid."
It's likely to be more than just one, however. If his students are inspired by the Grammy, "I'm happy to be that person for them right now."
The story behind the Grammy may be just as inspirational as the award itself.
The Pacific Mambo Orchestra benefits from the leadership of two musicians. "From the beginning, we shared responsibilities," Kuehn said. "One person cannot do it all."
A loan was needed to add on to Tumalan's studio to record the album, which the 19-piece orchestra recorded in sections. The co-directors launched an online Kickstarter campaign to raise $11,000 to record.
"We asked our musicians to be cool," Kuehn said, noting they were paid half up front, and half by the end of the year as money came in from CD sales and performances.
"It was a community effort," he said, "really, a grass-roots effort."
Kuehn and Tumalan handled the promotion themselves, sending out recordings and print materials to radio stations. They also took to Facebook and Twitter. The band's website, www.pacificmambo.com, offers a sample of music and listings for upcoming performances.
Those upcoming performances include the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the San Jose Jazz Festival, Stanford Jazz Festival and the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.
The moment in the spotlight at the Grammy Awards was a testament to "a lot of work, persistence and commitment to a cause," Kuehn said.
The California Legislature took notice, too, sending a proclamation recognizing Pacific Mambo Orchestra for representing the Bay Area music scene to the world.
In his remarks on stage at the Grammys, Kuehn noted that a German and a Mexican were winning for Best Tropical Latin.
"What are the odds?" That's what music is about. It doesn't know country. It doesn't know race. It doesn't know color. It doesn't know gender."
Perhaps it doesn't know age, either. All Saints principal Jennifer Diaz, noting how much her students get out of the MUSE program, was planning to replace the Catholic Schools Week banner that hung over the school in late January with one honoring their music teacher.
"Even kids who aren't in the band are excited," she said.
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