Music & Nightlife

Mr. Rose’s opus: Coral Reef High choral director battles ALS, wins love of student champs

Some teachers really make an impact.

And then there’s Mr. Rose, the choral director of the award-winning Coral Reef Senior High choir.

To hear his students rhapsodize about John Rose’s effect on their young lives, a good writer could fuel a season of scripts for TV’s musical series, Glee.

Move over, Mr. Shue. Mr. Rose is the real deal. He’s led his choirs to state honors, founded a non-profit performing arts program, and, lately, he has done so while battling some serious health issues.

“Mr. Rose has taught me to be an incredible leader,” said Coral Reef choir president, Samantha Dubin, 18. “Everything from music, to things that are applicable in life, things I can take to college and my job in the future, he’ll always be the little voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You can do this.’”

“He’s inspired me in all the things he’s overcome. He teaches not just the music, but the meaning behind it,” said Leia Schwartz, 17, a finalist in April as a composer in the Young Talent Big Dreams competition sponsored by Actors’ Playhouse and The Children’s Trust.

Says senior Luisa Rodriguez, 18: “He’s our anchor and we learn to do things for ourselves and he’s really prepared us for life after high school.”

Born in Miami, Rose, 61, has been teaching for 40 years locally, the last 15 at Coral Reef, a magnet school in Southwest Miami-Dade’s Richmond Heights community he helped open with Martha Cabrera, the school’s visual and performing arts lead teacher.

She, too, sings his praises. “He’s incredible. A giving soul.”

Under Rose’s direction, the “Cuda Choir” has earned superior ratings and a distinguished honor at the State Music Performance Assessment earlier this month and straight superiors at Districts. The students were named grand prize winners of the 2012 Merrick Festival Caroling Competition and, in a rarity for a high school group, they staged a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, The Mikado.

A decade ago, one of Rose’s choirs was invited to back Josh Groban ( You Raise Me Up) during one of his concert stops at The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater.

Rose also founded the non-profit Where Every Child Is a Star, a performing arts summer camp and program in Miami that offers instruction and promotes participation in music. The group’s SuperNova Singers show choir will perform in concert Saturday at First Baptist Church of Coral Ridge.

But, for the last three years, Rose has conducted his choirs without the full use of his body. Stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating motor neuron illness also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Rose has limited function of his arms, a conductor’s tools of the trade.

As a result, his students have banded around him.

Rose’s wife Laura will tell you how they will open doors at Coral Reef as he approaches, warm his food for lunch, help turn his music pages. But most of all, they will sing: big, rich, harmonious voices in unison that resonate around the walls of Rose’s classroom. The walls and ledges here are festooned with plaques, trophies and posters.

However, hardware can only tell one part of this story.

“It’s not the first time I’ve had problems,” said Rose, a father of three children ages 16-27. “I had vocal surgery one time and couldn’t talk about 20 years ago, before this school [at South Dade High]. I had to figure out a way of teaching without talking. You test different things. These kids have sensitized themselves to me more. They are caring. Not that they weren’t caring before but when things happen it bonds people. I thought my conducting style was one of my strengths, how I moved my hands. Now, I gesture. As long as I feel I have something to give they can benefit from, then I think I’ll still be here.”

And that, his students say, is the sweetest song.

“Even before, when he was able to move a lot, he didn’t. He’s honed this chorus so he doesn’t need to be in front to conduct to a T,” said Nicole Falco, 17. “He can just look at us as and we know.”

Rose, his students say, promotes individuality and teamwork simultaneously. The lesson served the choir well as they now work with their teacher to propel the program forward.

“It’s amazing to see how people, who are all different, come together for a certain purpose,” Nicole said. “We are a part of something bigger than just ourselves.”

Rose says the lessons work both ways.

“I’ve been teaching for 40 years and I tell them how I teach now is a reflection of all the students that I’ve come across in my path of teaching,” he said. “Every year they give me something. They encourage me and they demand things from me. The expectations change as I grow. I use music as a vehicle to teach life skills — skills that are good for citizenship and work ethics.”

Rose manages his ALS with life-style modifications, which include giving up his beloved two to three cups of coffee a day to avoid the detrimental effects of caffeine. “That was terrible,” he laughs.

Proving an example for young students is also an important part of his therapy.

“Bad things happen to everyone and successful people are the ones who overcome their challenges in life to become successful,” Rose said. “When the kids come in here they have to deal with what’s happening in their lives for them to be productive and successful in the future. They can’t allow negative things in life to hold them back. They have to find a way around it.”

Senior Frank Laucerica, 18, the president of the student advisory academy, first met Rose when he was in eighth grade and he auditioned to get into Coral Reef which, today, numbers 3,000 students.

“He’s an all-around cool guy,” Frank said. “There’s a physical difference in how he used to be and is now. Emotionally, there’s not much of a difference in his spirit. He makes you want to be a stronger person. Even though something is happening in your life, you can still work harder to overcome that. I love him a lot. Even though it breaks my heart to see him like this, it’s inspiring.”

Rose reflects for a moment on this outpouring from his students.

“I don’t want my illness to be a big deal,” he began, “but if I can teach them how to live through challenges, it’s one thing to tell them, but to live it in front of them. So we have our ups and downs and they are there for me. I know these kids are caring and do exceptional things and they are going to pass it on. They are going to pass it on.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.