Friday, June 23, 2006
Community honors Mr. O.: music education maestro
Once again the number of Carlisle musicians inspired by Fine Arts Coordinator Tom O'Halloran greatly exceeded expectations. Volunteers had to build an extension to the CCHS stage so it could hold the 201 musicians playing in the final number, "Old Scottish Melody," at the alumni concert held on Saturday, June 17. The musicians included Carlisle School Band alumni, about half of whom currently play in the CCHS band, and 88 members of the current Carlisle senior band. About 500 attendees gathered to honor O'Halloran and recognize his accomplishments at the Carlisle Public School over the past 23 years. He will retire this week.
"I expected maybe 10 or 12 people," said O'Halloran of the more than 100 alumni musicians who came to play. "I was so nervous for weeks about this. I came in today, had no idea about what to expect. The fact that we had name tags sure didn't hurt."
O'Halloran and CCHS conductor Al Dentino — affectionately known as "Mr. O" and "Mr. D" — shared baton responsibilities at the performance. Dentino estimated that although Carlisle students represent about one quarter of the CCHS enrollment, about half of the high school band are from Carlisle.
"Tom and I are very similar philosophically," he continued. Dentino has been CCHS band director for 14 of his 27 years in the Concord school system. "We both understand that we can and we do expect excellence from our kids. We give them the very finest literature [for their level], and we expect them to play it. I have just enjoyed having someone working with our younger kids that expects excellence just the way I do. There are far too few band directors in this world that enjoy that age group, that are able to communicate with them on their level and still expect excellence from them."
Shaping the Carlisle program
O'Halloran knew as a high school sophomore that he wanted to be a band director. He grew up in western Pennsylvania where he attended North Hills High School with its highly competitive marching and concert band. Focused on his goal, O'Halloran applied to only one college, Carnegie Mellon University, which he felt could best enable him to achieve his dream. He earned two degrees there, a bachelor of music in trombone performance and a master of fine arts in Music Education.
After a year as a general music teacher in a Pittsburgh suburb, he taught grades four through twelve in the Belmont Public Schools for 11 years. O'Halloran arrived at the Carlisle Public School in 1983. There were 27 kids in the senior band, and a third of them were flute players, according to O'Halloran. He very quickly established a style of great expectations with stern and strict requirements tempered by a sense of humor and wit.
"We were at school when Mr. O'Halloran arrived," said John Berman, a former Indian Hill resident and currently an ABC News reporter. "I had already started taking trumpet here with my partner here, Rob Naidich. We took it together for five years in Carlisle. Mr. O. showed up after the first year we had taken it, and I think the state of the music program in Carlisle was pretty awful. And we were pretty awful. We had little interest in practicing, and we had little interest in anything. He came in and he really tried to straighten things out, to straighten us out."
Trumpet lessons with a punch
O'Halloran very quickly advised the trumpet players to practice more or they should quit. Berman recalled his trying to teach the two boys how to breathe when playing the trumpet. O'Halloran tried to convince them that they would develop very strong stomach muscles, and invited Naidich to punch him in the stomach to see. The student refused at first, but finally the strong fifth grader acquiesced. Berman quipped, "I think Rob to this day has a malformed hand due to the experience." Although Berman quit the trumpet after leaving the middle school, he believes O'Halloran inspired his love for music and was proud that after over 20 years he could pick up the trumpet and read music well enough to play in the alumni band.
After middle school, Berman attended a private high school and then Harvard, while Naidich went on to CCHS and the University of Chicago. Today Naidich is a computer consultant and is still close friends with Berman. It's apparent that their common experiences and appreciation for O'Halloran helped cement that middle school bond even though the two went in different directions after 1986.
After O'Halloran spent only a couple of years whipping the Carlisle music program into shape, he led the senior band to compete in the annual MICCA state competition. This band has earned close to 20 consecutive gold medals, the most recent in 2006. It's common to hear high school students commenting in the hallways at the event: "Did you hear the Carlisle band? They are in middle school!"
"Going to MICCA every year was a great reward for all the hard work that we had put in," said Aaron Pinsky of Fifty Acre Way, who played the French horn for the senior band until 1998. He graduated from CCHS in 2002 and earned his college degree from Williams this year. "Music has been a huge part of my life from fourth grade on," he continued. "In high school, I played in orchestras and bands all over the place. I played in the orchestra the first two years of college. I did a lot of music, and it's all thanks to the foundation I learned in elementary and middle school with Mr. O."
The Carlisle senior band has played in numerous music festivals in the state, including Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, as well as New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and even Washington, D.C. Overall, O'Halloran has introduced over 1,000 students to their first instruments, and he himself has earned numerous awards and accolades as band director. In 1996, he earned his second master's degree with Massachusetts State Certification as a director of music.
O'Halloran enjoyed working with the beginning bands of the fourth grade, even though he admitted that he would get headaches from them. He shared one of his favorite memories: "One year the beginning band was playing their first concert in December. We had a power failure on the stage, and it was totally dark in the auditorium. They never stopped; they never skipped a beat. They went all the way to the end. And then the lights came on. I don't know if it was done out of fear or what, but they just kept playing."
O'Halloran, too, will keep on playing into an active retirement. He will be a part-time instrumental music teacher in Sherborn, Mass., and will continue to provide private instruction for lower brass students in Carlisle and Concord.
Music brings back the memories
The alumni concert commenced with a touching slide show of Carlisle bands over the years with a soundtrack of their recorded music (included on the performance DVD). The concert program interspersed performances by the alumni band, the senior band, and guest speakers.
"Excellence in music"
Former Carlisle School Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson summed up O'Halloran's contribution at the Carlisle school by recounting that he brought the program from "good to great." She credited him with establishing "excellence in music as part of the Carlisle tradition." In fact, when Fox-Melanson arrived at the school in 1991 she found the library shuttered, a middle school without a guidance counselor, and classes burgeoning. However, the music program was thriving and was considered one of the school's "crown jewels." Fox-Melanson attributed this accomplishment directly to O'Halloran, and called him the "father of the music program." She caught the melancholy response felt by many attendees listening to beautiful music in an emotional situation by saying, "Tom is one of the men in my life who has made me cry repeatedly." She mentioned Symphony Hall and graduations on the plaza and expected to add this alumni concert to her list.
Former teachers David Mayall and David Negrin discussed O'Halloran's tenure from a teacher's point of view. Mayall confided that new superintendents are told that, "The band is the football team." He issued O'Halloran monthly invitations to join six other Carlisle teachers in ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out). Negrin revealed some of O'Halloran comments to the senior band: calling a section "babies" when they weren't playing loudly enough and asking a musician why he even kept trying since he was playing so poorly. And, the biggest insult of all: "If you continue to play so badly, we'll send you to Concord." Negrin shared his surprise over O'Halloran's fundraising brainstorm to sell fruit and his amazement when it actually worked.
Dentino told O'Halloran to rejoice that there were two things he'd never have to say again: "A quarter note gets one beat" and "Saxophones use your middle finger."
Brian O'Halloran, Mr. O.'s son, shared his most cherished memory as a boy. He said he was very proud of his father when attending school concerts at the Corey Auditorium in Carlisle. Afterwards, father and son would clean up the discarded programs. Perhaps that's the only area where the competitive Tom O'Halloran's numbers will go down. Few attendees left their cherished programs behind after this bittersweet performance.
Alumni impressions of Mr. O.
"We were playing in jazz band and one of the newer drummers was playing on the drum kit and having a lot of trouble; it was one of those soft, jazzy tunes. Mr. O. just stopped everyone and said, 'You're like a bull in a china shop, man.' That's the typical Mr. O. Very direct, but in a very nice way."
Andy Hackbarth, trumpet, CPS '91, CCHS '95, Harvard '99. Works for non-profit health care consultancy in Cambridge and plays in some rock and blues bands.
"Mr. O. really strived for excellence and maintained competition, but friendly, fun competition, and had high standards for the band."
Rachel Pinsky, clarinet, CPS '94, CCHS '98, Vassar '02. Works for software company, plays in Metropolitan Wind Symphony in Natick.
"I liked the 'joke of the week' in beginner band, and his stories in senior band. If he hadn't motivated me so much, I probably would have quit flute halfway through fourth grade."
Siobhan Galligan, flute, CPS '05, currently enrolled at CCHS.
"He was always trying to get us to do our best. Being in the band for five years, I played five Memorial Days and in five graduations. It was a big part of our experience.
Molly Crowther, clarinet, CPS '01, CCHS '05, student at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and member of the school's "only conductor-less orchestra in the U.S."
"He really had us work hard, and it was really good for him to believe that we could play the stuff we actually played. After that, the transition to high school and other music was just that much easier."
Brian Abend, trumpet, CPS '98, CCHS '02, Middlebury College '06
All photos by Mollie McPhee Ho
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito