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IUSD teacher-composer inspires students through music

Sometimes Brendan McBrien, 52, wakes in the middle of the night, struck by the ghost of a melody floating fleetingly through his head.

The muse strikes him often and unexpectedly, a musical bent born at an early age when he first heard the string quartet in "Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles.

"I remember being just a little boy just frozen by the sound I was hearing," he said.

Since growing up playing the Frech horn, McBrien has trained in every orchestral instrument and has enjoyed a long career of composing music – not for grand orchestras worldwide but for his students.

An Irvine Unified music teacher for more than 25 years, McBrien now teaches at Venado Middle School and has published more than 30 original compositions for kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

He's served on too many music educator associations to list here, and his accolades include the IUSD Middle School Teacher of the Year award and the Secondary Teacher of the Year award from the Orange County Music and Arts Administrators Association. In his free time, he plays professionally in orchestras around Orange County and Los Angeles, but he's rather humble about his resume.

"My livelihood is as a teacher, so I don't bang my own drum," he said.

Often, students won't even realize that they're playing a piece of his. Instead, McBrien focuses on pushing them to excel musically and practice a balanced lifestyle.

"He makes me realize that music is just as important to you as athletics or getting good grades because it makes you understand a part of life that you haven't really reached yet," said Harrison Ku, 12, an eighth-grader at Venado.

McBrien started composing during his own middle school years, writing new parts to work with pieces he was learning for the two youth orchestras he played in. The habit stuck through college, where he earned his bachelor's and master's in composition at Cal State Long Beach. And though he's working with younger students now, his music is no less challenging.

"He pushes them beyond what they believe they can do," said Joe Moreno, an Irvine Unified student teacher who works with McBrien at Venado. "He's kind of a fatherly figure, a coach-type figure who inspires students to go further than they thought they could."

It's a two-way street – students give feedback as they're learning to play a new piece, helping him make edits and better understand the composition as it's taking shape.

And it's paid off.

For the last 22 years, McBrien's groups have earned the highest ratings from the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association.

"Whenever I play a piece, I've learned to really feel it," said Sho Chawla, 13, an eight-grader at Venado. "He's taught me that it's really important to express emotions through your music as it'll make your playing better, and you'll connect deeper with your emotions."

Students of his still come back from time to time to visit him, or connect with him on Facebook; for Harrison and Sho, they're certain that because of Mr. McBrien, music will follow them wherever they go.

"Whenever I go to music (class), I'm always encouraged because I know that it's going to be a good day," Harrison said.

"He makes me realize that music is just as important to you as athletics or getting good grades because it makes you understand a part of life that you haven't really reached yet."

– Harrison Ku, 12, eighth grade

"Whenever someone needs help, everyone goes to Mr. McBrien instead of looking stuff up on the Internet because they know he's going to help them."

– Sho Chawla, 13, eighth grade

Contact the writer: 714-796-7944 or

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