Under the Monocle: Mr. Chris Gemkow


Mr. Gemkow helps Tanya Guerrero, junior, with a guitar part for her final project

York students know Mr. Chris Gemkow as the Wilco-loving music teacher, who teaches Music Production, Intro to Guitar and Evolution of Rock and Roll, and who sponsors clubs such as Amateur Musicians and Record Club. He is also in charge of Fine Arts Week.

However, most students probably don’t know about how he became York’s resident rock and roll guru and the admired teacher he is today. Some students may be surprised to learn the Mr. Gemkow had no intentions of becoming a teacher before college.

Throughout high school, Mr. Gemkow did not once think about becoming a teacher.

“I was gonna go into business, Gemkow said. I had a very immature idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to go get a job and make money; that’s probably what most kids think.”

After studying business at Indiana University, he decided that career path was not for him.

“Instead of working with data, I wanted to work with people,” Gemkow said.

He then decided to continue at Indiana University to study education and English.

“I had a lot of good teachers that had some impact on my life,” Gemkow said. “I thought that might be interesting to have an impact on people’s lives in some small way. Plus, I like to read, so maybe I should study English.”

After graduating Indiana University, he began teaching English in the Bay Area of California for two years. He then took a break from teaching while living in Montana and working for AmeriCorps with teenagers, maintaining trails in a wilderness area.

Later on, he moved back to Chicago where he became certified to teach special education. For two years, he taught in various school settings, including alternative schools for children with behavioral problems.

In 2007, Gemkow became a Duke after being hired to teach special education English here at York.

After two years teaching English, Gemkow got to know Mr. Bill Riddle through the faculty band they organized for the Fine Arts Week talent show. It was during those rehearsals when Mr. Riddle got to know Mr. Gemkow as more than just a musician, songwriter, and vocalist.

“It was awesome getting to know him as a bandmate and as a friend,” Riddle said. “His love for music really stood out when I first met him.”

During one of the band’s rehearsals, Mr. Riddle had to leave early to look for a new teacher for the guitar classes York offers.

“I threw out the idea well, kinda jokingly, ‘What about a special ed English teacher would that qualify?’” Gemkow said.

Mr. Riddle took his comment into serious consideration. Mr. Gemkow spent the next year and a half taking graduate classes in order to get his endorsement to teach music.

“The job was available, and I took a part time guitar job,” Gemkow said.

Since then, Mr. Riddle has had the opportunity to get to know Mr. Gemkow better through working closely with him in the music department. He describes Mr. Gemkow as “student-centered, inspirational and musical” which he has observed first hand in the classroom as one one of Mr. Gemkow’s evaluators.

“He is very willing to meet students where they’re at,” Riddle said. “He will change his instruction to meet where a student might be to ensure that the student will be successful.”

Mr. Gemkow helps Evie Hickman, sophomore, set up a microphone to record an original violin part. She is working on the Sound Design project, where students compose the music for a video of their choice.

Mr. Riddle is not the only one to sing Mr. Gemkow’s praises. Many of Gemkow’s students share similar opinions with Mr. Riddle.

Rocco Ramos, an incoming freshman, had his first experience with Mr. Gemkow this summer while taking the Music Production course. Ramos felt that taking the course and getting to know Mr. Gemkow prepared him for York and the classroom expectations. Ramos also found the class to be very enjoyable because of Mr. Gemkow, who loved to help students with their projects.

“My favorite thing about Mr. Gemkow and the class is the freedom that he gives you in almost every project,” Ramos said. “There aren’t that many boundaries. He keeps it very open which I love.”

Maya Toffler, a junior, took music production her sophomore year. Before taking the class, she expected to come out with a little knowledge on the music software, but she left the class feeling much more confident with producing her own music.

“It was because of him that I wrote my first song,” Toffler said. “I like just how much he believes in his students and his willingness to push you even when you’re not willing to push yourself. It means a lot to know that he’s on your side.

Sophomore, Nick Zehner, works on his final project for music production during summer school. He is working on his Key of C project where the task is to come up with your own chord progression in the key of C. Photo by Kate Piechaczek

Other students find that Mr. Gemkow has helped them in ways outside of the classroom as well. Take Julian Wrobel, a sophomore, who has yet to experience a class with Mr. Gemkow.

“He did a live recording session with [me and a few friends],” Wrobel said. “He got [us] to play at the St. Baldrick’s pep rally.”

Similarly, Mr. Gemkow has had an impact on senior, Chris Ziebert, who has taken all three music production classes.
“He gives me a musical outlet,” Ziebert said. “I can play music that I choose and be onstage more often.”

In the 10 years that Mr. Gemkow has been teaching at York, he has become the sponsor of Amateur Musicians and Record Club as well as becoming in charge of Fine Arts Week and the Fine Arts Week Committee.

“My first year here, I didn’t even know what Fine Arts Week was,” Gemkow said. “And I was just walking down the hall, and I heard a blues band playing in the auditorium. I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ So I just hung out, and I was like, ‘This is really cool.’”

After that week, Gemkow knew he wanted to be involved with it somehow. So, the following year, he shadowed Mr. Curt Merrill, the former piano teacher and the head of Fine Arts Week.

“After that experience, I wanted to be more involved and know how this all worked,” Gemkow said.

Not long after, the opportunity arose when Mr. Merrill retired. Mr. Riddle then asked Mr. Gemkow to take over Fine Arts Week.

“I was very intimidated by that idea because it is such a huge task,” Gemkow said. “And when it came time for somebody to take over, Mr. Riddle asked me if I would do it, and so I did. It’s a huge task, but every year I get a little bit better.”

Even with all of the time his classes and extra activities consume, Mr. Gemkow still finds time to make his own music with other teachers in the band, the Rented Mules. Bandmates include Mr. Adam Gearing and Mr. Tim Albert.

“We write songs together; we do a gig every once in awhile,” ,” Gemkow said.  “We’re all in it for fun. It’s just for the love of music.”