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MJ leads his students in a vocal exercise.

Beloved Teacher Makes Musical Magic at Grimsley

Marshall “MJ” Johnson celebrates his 20th anniversary leading vocal music at Grimsley. 

By Ashley Crowell

In Marshall “MJ” Johnson’s classroom, there are many different flags, posters and memorabilia from years past that show the history and character of the Grimsley vocal music program. But one sign perfectly captures the spirit of the vocal music and modern band director. 


“NO- you may not draw on the board when I am not here or without my permission. EVER. Love, MJ,”  the sign reads. MJ’s students know they can feel at home in his classroom and express themselves, but that there are limits. His classroom is a safe place, where they have a teacher who listens and will always be there for them. He’s also got a lot to teach them.


“If a student believes that the person they are learning from truly cares that they learn that thing and they are going to benefit from it, that’s the magic sauce,” MJ said.


He’s also a teacher who insists everyone, including staff and students alike, call him by his nickname. As he likes to say, “No one knows who Marshall Johnson is, but everyone knows MJ.”


MJ has experience creating a culture where students can thrive. He first worked at Grimsley as a student teacher while studying at UNCG. After teaching music in schools in Myrtle Beach, Raleigh and Ohio, MJ returned to Grimsley 20 years ago to take over the vocal music program when the previous teacher retired. He was drawn back to Grimsley by the Madrigal program. 


“That was the thing I was most excited to come here for,” MJ said. “I specialized in early music as a professional singer, so I was singing a lot of medieval and renaissance music professionally in New York and in San Francisco.”


The Madrigal Singers are a long tradition at Grimsley, beginning in 1966, and perform a cappella Renaissance music in period costumes. They are well known in the community and often perform at the NC Renaissance Festival, Biltmore House and many local events, including Greensboro’s Downtown Festival of Lights every December. 


Sophomore Bridget Schoultz has been in the vocal music department since freshman year, and this was her first year as a Madrigal. Schoultz described how her high school career wouldn’t be the same without MJ. 


“With MJ, I was able to find a loving community which he cherished and that made me feel comfortable,” Schoultz said. “Without MJ, my high school life so far would be so different and I am forever grateful for that.”


Along with teaching the Madrigals and Concert Choir, MJ also leads IB music and two classes of Modern Band. These classes focus on teaching music students to perform on modern instruments together as well as operate sound and lighting equipment. 


Open mic nights are a popular part of the modern band curriculum. Several times a year, MJ’s classroom is transformed into a concert venue, complete with fog, professional lights and talented student performers. 


Not only does MJ teach a wide range of music at Grimsley, he also is involved in several different projects outside of school. One of his bands, Flash Jackman, released an album on Christmas day last year.  MJ plays with another group, Bandemic, in the community and also leads the modern worship service at West Market Street United Methodist Church.


From Renaissance music to modern rock, MJ cultivates a love of all kinds of music for his students.


“I just have so many different interests and things and I am just so passionate about music and about teaching and learning,” MJ said. “Teaching is teaching. It’s all about relationships and how you convey information to other people in a way that is meaningful to them that they can connect with.”


Freshman Kennedy Goree, a student in his concert choir, knows firsthand the magic of being in MJ’s classroom. She’s excited to have been tapped to join the Madrigals as an alto next school year and continue as his student.


“MJ is always in a good mood!” Goree said. “His energy is contagious, and after a long day at school there is nothing better than to walk into his class and feel instantly welcomed!”


By teaching a diversity of subjects, MJ has the opportunity to build relationships with students from all kinds of backgrounds. But they all find a place to belong in MJ’s classroom.


“It’s a pretty simple formula,” MJ said. “It’s not complex. It’s just being kind and being open, and being authentic in every way that you can. People want to be known and people want to know you, and if you allow that, then there’s real magic that can happen in a classroom.”

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