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The Music and Life of Arlington High School Music Director Tino “Mr. T” D’Agostino

Tino D'Agostino

Tino D’Agostino

As the notes from Hollywood’s most famous scores – from “Star Wars” to “Titanic” all the way to a goose bump-inducing rendition of Schindler’s List theme – filled a jam packed Arlington City Hall Auditorium, many in the audience kept their eyes closed: after all there is no better combination than movies and music to be swept away by powerful memories and emotion. Especially when the music is so flawless it could be coming out of the speakers of a theater or from the seasoned instruments played by the expert hands of an orchestra of famous professional musicians.

Instead, when the spectators opened their eyes and returned to 2013 Arlington from whatever time or place their movie-score-triggered suggestions took them, they realized, performing on stage were a bunch of kids; in many cases, their kids, too. Talk about powerful memories and emotions!

In fact what looked – and sounded – like a concert by the Boston Pops was “just” the Arlington High School end-of-the year concert, a two-hour elaborate production that included classical, pop, jazz, and polyfonic accapella performances – directed by his colleague Cheryl Christo – by a total of 180 students in full concert attire. And everybody, in the audience, as well as on stage, knew that all this would not happen – at least not on this scale – if it weren’t for musical director Tino D’Agostino or like everyone around here calls him “Mr.T”.

“No matter how long you have worked here, performing for the families and, really, the city, is always elating and emotional. To see how much energy this kids put into it … is just a beautiful thing,” says the slender, tan, and somewhat shy 46-year old from Salerno, Italy, with the satisfaction from the recent successful performance of his “kids” still fresh in his dark brown Mediterranean eyes.

His adventure as music teacher and band director at Arlingtoin High School began in 1999, three years after graduating from world renowned Berklee College of Music and the passion he puts into his job (not only on stage where the wave length with his musicians is palpable and self evident) but even when he simply talks about it, makes it hard to believe that as he himself admits, initially he “did it for money,” or as political correctness enthusiasts would say “to achieve some sort of financial stability.”

Photo Tino High Res.No matter how you say it, making a living out of gigs is vey hard for non-famous musicians, regardless of how good they are. And Tino, originally a bass guitar and trumpet player is good, good for real. The Berklee faculty thinks so, as they let him teach summer classes there since 2002, so does the management of the Lugano conservatory, in Switzerland where he also teaches, regularly, four times a year. To the point that many in the business, fellow musicians and simple music lovers that heard him play – for instance with his “Italian flavoured” jazz band Spajazzy – wonder why he does not leap into the professional music scene once and for all.

“This job has become my life,” replies Mr.T, flattered by the praise, of course, yet clearly determined to hang on to his “mission”, to which between rehearsing, choreographing and recruiting he devotes a countless number of extra hours, as long as he can, and actually to push it as far as possible into the future.

“Technology opens up opportunities for kids to be creative, that were unimaginable when I started out,” he reflects. In fact the last concert featured clips of the movies (edited by the students) projected in real time (from a mixer console also operated by students) as their respective scores were being played on stage. “At the same time, music prevents them from abusing technology and somewhat force them to communicate in the old fashion way – and not only by expressing themselves through an instrument. I see them when they come in the music room, they talk to each other, hug each other: by creating music together they realize the value of collaboration, friendship and real teamwork.”

Exactly that same teamwork, according to Tino, is missing in his beloved Italy, where he returns regularly, as a private citizen and an instructor of summer clinics as well as a teacher. In fact at least once a year he brings groups of selected student-musicians to his “old country” on journeys halfway between field trips and concert tours of which he personally co-ordinates and organizes the obviously complicated logistics. “There is so much potential there,” he complains with evident disappointment, “yet music is not taken seriously in public schools … resources are given different priorities and music ends up being perceived as something reserved to professionals and stars.”

In fact Tino, who took the school band (which students can choose as an elective activity among many others including Spanish and cooking) from 29 elements in 1999 to 180 today, is the living proof it can – and should be – exactly the opposite. “Ninety-eight out of 100 of my students will not continue to make music, at least not professionally. But the educational value of their four years in the band will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” explains Tino who proudly points out that in his career he never had anybody drop out of his course.

“The trick is to keep them engaged and excited from the first day to the last: of course, in the case of teenagers is no easy task. Challenging them with music that they like is one way to achieve it; also showing your enthusiasm an dedication as a teacher helps: if you are tired, bored, sloppy they will feel entitled to be the same.”

Whatever it is he is doing, however, he is doing it right. The gusto his “prodigy children” show on stage (regardless if they are playing the Overture of 1812 or a cello rendition of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”) and the glances of complicity they exchange with their teacher/director speak for themselves.

And he, Mr.T, just loves it. “ I found the right balance: although this job takes up most of my time and energy, it still allows me to perform outside of the school; only I can select my gigs, play what I like, where I want, and with whom I am comfortable with: in other words I can afford to say no to wedding parties and to doing Y-M-C-A every week,” he concludes. His eyes sparkle.

Who knows maybe he just thought of doing that song, with his students at some point in the future – God knows with what kind of arrangement. One thing is for certain: if and when he does it, he will make it look – and sound – like a rendition by the Boston Pops.

About Stefano Salimbeni

Stefano is a Boston-based freelance reporter, correspondent and producer for Italy’s national TV network RAI. Over the past 15 years he has produced more than 800 “Italian-angled” news stories and features from New England and from around the United States for RAI’s international channel, RAI Italia, broadcast to over 60 million viewers of Italian origins or of Italian descent living outside of Italy. He also assisted, and occasionally still does, RAI’s main correspondents in producing news stories and special reports during major news events. For the past three years, Stefano has also been the US correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana, one of Italy’s most widely circulated national magazines. He came to Boston in 1996 to earn a master’s degree and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a journalist. Stefano’s work can be viewed on his personal website, www.stefanosalimbeni.com.