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A Gentleman from Wisconsin

Instrumentalist Editors | March 2014

    Nicholas J. Contorno, who spent five decades teaching music with unflagging passion, died on February 2, 2014. His long career as a director, composer, and performer included teaching positions at every level. To him, the music mattered far more than the job title. As he noted in 2009: “Occasionally I was asked if I looked forward to moving up, but this always seemed to be a silly question. Each of these positions was equally difficult. In my view some directors worry too much about being at the top of the profession.” Contorno grew up in Bay View, Wisconsin and later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; he also earned a doctorate in composition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
    He met his wife while teaching band at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay in 1964; she was a math teacher at the school and found Contorno fascinating. He joined Kettle Moraine High School in 1968 and remained there until he was appointed director of bands at Marquette University in 1983. He taught at Marquette for 24 years and also served as conductor of the First Brigade Civil War Band of Wisconsin and The Milwaukee Concert Band. He published works with several publishers including JPM, Really Good Music, Daehn, and Hal Leonard, among others.
    After retiring from Marquette, Contorno was anticipating a slower pace and a lighter workload. He quickly became bored and started a brand new music program at a local Catholic middle school. He also dedicated his efforts to collecting music and instruments to go to Haiti, where a music school has been named for him. The teacher kept teaching.
Nick Contorno was a loyal friend and contributor to The Instrumentalist. Below are excerpts from some of his articles over the years.
Early Inspiration
    Back in 1962 at the Midwest Convention, I watched Harry Begian conduct the Cass Technical High School band on the Hindemith Symphony for Band. Being a new band director I had never heard of Harry Begian or Cass Tech, but I had never heard a high school performance of this quality and was astounded by what I heard.
    I tucked the experience away and for 46 years I have been gripped by what I heard. I was amazed that an ensemble this large could perform so musically, be perfectly disciplined, and obviously enjoy every second they made music together. This was the magic of Harry Begian. There were no wasted moves or beats from his baton, and this was the model I wanted to follow for my musical career, regardless of the level of the ensemble I led. (September 2010)

Early Teaching Lessons
    One of my strongest memories from these early years is the necessity of trying anything that might help students. (My colleague Wayne Becker and I) often experimented with new approaches and materials and even made a big chart that compared the characteristics of different method books. The chart noted when clarinets played over the break or when each book introduced eighth notes. When another publisher released a new method that might be better, we tried it with one of the elementary bands as a trial run and sometimes used it at all schools in the district…. We also spent time helping each other learn the fine points of different instruments. Wayne was stronger with brass instruments and I played clarinet, saxophone, and flute professionally, so we worked on our weaker instruments. During our first year together he worked on flute after school and I practiced tuba. The next year he moved on to clarinet while I learned the trombone. Some of my dedication to hard work resulted from early hurdles when I was a young player. I clearly recall that as a 4th grader I felt really discouraged after playing a solo, and I vowed never to play that badly again. That realization and commitment to music changed my life.
    I learned from experience that students blossom at different speeds, and there is no benefit to rushing through a lesson book. It is more important to learn basic concepts and move forward slowly than to cover a large amount of material quickly.

Concert Programming
    A good program is everything ­– music should be challenging, meaningful, and entertaining to both audience and players. Sometimes we’d read a piece in rehearsal and afterward I would ask, “Why would anyone want to come hear us play this? We just aren’t doing this as well as we could.” They would agree, and then I would ask whether we could play it. If they said they could, I knew I was home free, but if they hemmed and hawed I knew it was unlikely to be a good experience. We played a lot of great literature, but sometimes there were some works that were too difficult for my players. Be discriminating and understand what you can do in the amount of time you have.
    The beauty of music lies in contrast, loud or soft, fast or slow, high or low, staccato or legato, duple or triple meter. The program should bring the audience up and down and entertain them. People like melodies. I programmed George Washington Bridge once but knew I would not get away a similar piece of the same concert. I want people to walk out singing the music, not white knuckled or complaining about what an ordeal it was. Sousa didn’t teach people – he entertained them. That’s why they kept coming. (Aug. 2007)

Coming out of Retirement
   When I retired from teaching at Marquette University in 2007, I thought it would be great fun to travel with my wife, play gigs, write music, read some books, and play with old cars. This plan worked for a year, but something was missing, and it was something I really loved: teaching band students. I did not want a full time position, but hoped to use my skills in helping young children to enjoy music and be part of a band.
    After much futile thinking I finally realized that the Catholic middle school in my parish did not have a band program. When a new principal was hired in 2009, I introduced myself and asked if she would like to have a band program. She was enthusiastic about the idea so we chatted further about it. She asked for a plan by late June with the thought of starting in the fall. The school enrollment was just 125 students, and half of these were third graders or younger. There also was no money for a band program, but we decided to go ahead. I asked a friend, John Szcygiel, who was also a just-retired band director if he would care to join me in this endeavor, and he quickly signed on. He had taught at every level and felt the plan was solid. We decided that he would be the director and I his assistant. My wife would organize the project, and the team was anxious to start.
    Each year has been a great improvement, and by the end of the fourth year the band travelled two hours to perform at the National Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Both John and I have enjoyed every year and are truly grateful for the continued outpouring of instrument donations. We hope to end the current year with 60 students participating. Between the two directors we have 80 years of teaching experience, and we learned long ago to disdain all gimmicks and tricks. We simply use the old fashioned techniques that helped us to build band programs and can report that these work just fine. Louis Armstrong once said, “The horn doesn’t lie.” This has been a great experience for me and an opportunity to give something back for all I have received in life, and I cannot imagine a better way to enjoy my retirement. (November 2011)