Parish: St. Paul, Genesee Depot
Occupation: Professional musician/composer/teacher
Book recently read: “Bands of America” by Harry Wayne Schwartz
Favorite movie: “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “The Glenn Miller Story”
Favorite quotation: “I only know two things – one, there is a God and two, I am not him.”
(Submitted photo courtesy Marquette University)
Musician honors God by sharing faith, music with students
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
Musicians usually listen to an unfamiliar piece of music on tape or CD before they learn to play it in concert.
The fifth grade students in St. Paul School’s band program don’t have that luxury. Instead, the students from Genesee Depot get to hear from the composer himself. Dr. Nicholas J. Contorno, the Genesee Depot-based, nationally renowned musician, composer, and arranger, is the new assistant to St. Paul’s band director, John Szcygiel.
Semi-retired, the 70-year-old owner and director of Nick Contorno & the Big Brass is excited for the opportunity to “climb one more mountain” and return to his teaching roots.
“I began teaching fifth grade students in the Glendale school system and now 46 years later, I am back teaching elementary band,” he said. “They have one knock-out band at St. Paul’s and already a third of the available kids are in the band. It is good and will only get better; they are bright kids, attentive and easy to work with. They are just a delight and I attribute that to the parents and to the schools.”
Recently retired after 24 years as director of bands and orchestra for Marquette University, Contorno, a member of St. Paul Parish, began his career with 22 years in the public and Catholic school system. A member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the award-winning composer’s work is represented in the publications of C.L Barnhouse, Bourne, Hal Leonard, Jenson, Pro-Art and Global Musical Interests Publications.
His career includes performing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Holiday on Ice, Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus Band, Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, and Les Elgart Orchestra. He frequently played in nationally recognized shows, including “Annie,” “42nd Street,” and for artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Burt Bacharach, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Natalie Cole, Manhattan Transfer, Vic Damone, Johnny Mathis, Dinah Shore, Mel Torme, the Four Lads, Sonny and Cher and many others.
Contorno has traveled around the United States and China as a guest soloist/conductor/adjuster/clinician with many school bands. He has numerous musical awards and memberships in professional organizations, such as the American Federation of Musicians, Local 8, Phi Beta MU, the National Band Association, the Sonneck Society, the Wisconsin Bandmasters Association, and the Phi MU AlphaSinfonia.
Although he has a myriad of accomplishments and titles, including musical coordinator of Festa Italiana, his spirit has not grown weary. Contorno will be the first to tell you that God had other plans for him, including the drive to give back.
“About 20 years ago, I was injured in a car accident and because of that, I don’t play like I used to,” he said. “Maybe this is why I was in the car wreck; I don’t feel sorry for myself, but always try to look ahead.”
Because Catholic schools receive no tax funding to build their music programs, they often fall a few steps behind the musical accomplishments of students in the public schools. Budgets are generally prioritized to build strong science, math and language programs. For Contorno, it is important that students be on equal footing with their public school counterparts, giving them the opportunity to succeed in the music world.
“This is probably the last band program I will be involved in in my lifetime, and since I am not playing as much – I only play about 50-60 dates per year – I can devote my energies to this and still write a good bit of music for publication for education,” he said. “I am passionate about this and want the young boys and girls to get to be good musicians.”
A strong proponent for an archdiocesan music program in the schools, Contorno hopes to see a director of music within the archdiocese appointed to coordinate music, contests and programs. Until then, his efforts and positive reinforcement are already paying off.
“The neat part is, by the time the kids only had two lessons, they were already going to each other’s houses to practice; the leadership is already coming out. I was so excited to see this because just two weeks before that, none of them even knew how to put their instruments together,” he said. “We are not just having lessons, we are going to have a band. I am excited that I can write pieces for them for their ability level. This, to me, is a hoot.”
Most important for Contorno is the opportunity to share his faith with his young students, a blessing he appreciated throughout his tenure at Marquette University.
“It was great; the kids used to talk to me about our faith and they would often ask me to pray for them before a test,” he said, adding, “But I would tell them to stop at the Joan of Arc Chapel or Gesu Church and then I would say a prayer for them – but I wanted them to do something for themselves first. I could talk about my faith there – something I couldn’t do in the public schools and that is very important to me.”
Combining faith with his music is a melding of two of Contorno’s great loves – the third is the love for his wife of 42 years, Lucille. As his faith grows stronger, so does his marriage, an aspect, he admits, he didn’t appreciate in the beginning.
“I was just blessed with this wonderful wife and two daughters,” he said. “Sometimes when you are young you are busy building a career, you don’t see the wonderful things you have and then – all of a sudden you are married 42 years. We have a strong commitment and the only word to describe it is excellence. We have something really special between us. It feels like we just got married yesterday … she is a great lady and I love her as much today as the day we got married.”
When he isn’t performing or teaching, Contorno enjoys tinkering with his 1938 Chevy Coupe, ’41 Chevy Club Coupe and ’55 Oldsmobile, and collecting music.
“I have over 40 filing cabinets full of old music,” he said. “I use a lot of it in my band or in teaching.”
Although he has worked with top notch, world-renowned musicians, Contorno has not lost his passion for sharing his faith or teaching young minds the difference between a dotted half note and a whole note. He anticipates a strong and growing band program at St. Paul’s and considers it, perhaps, God’s final call for his successful career.
“We honor the Lord through song, dance and music and all different things and we should be doing it. I have not lost my passion for it,” he said. “The best part of it will be seeing all these little people making music together and I think it is the coolest thing in the world.”