By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Instrumental music educator Gary Piazza created countless memories for his students and himself while working a 34-year career, 28 of which were at Marlborough High School (MHS).
Concluding the 2017-2018 academic year, he viewed a video given to him as a retirement gift during the annual awards banquet of the Marlborough Public Schools Music Association. The video captures comments from colleagues including Jonathan Rosenthal, the Marlborough district music coordinator; and former students, many of whom are now music educators gratefully crediting Piazza for inspiring them.
“When I saw the video for the first time I wiped away tears – it was incredibly touching,” Piazza recalled. “It’s the ultimate gift to know that you have touched a person’s life.”
While growing up in Dartmouth, Piazza played trumpet with inspiration from his middle and high school band directors. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education at the University of North Texas, he was offered a graduate assistant scholarship at Arkansas State University. Upon graduating with a master’s degree in performance in 1984, he received another offer: assistant band director at Ouachita Parish High School in Monroe, La.
“I learned from a gentleman, Donnie Dee, who is a master in music education,” Piazza relayed. “He had a quiet demeanor backed up with knowledge and intensity that the kids respected.”
Returning to Massachusetts in 1988, Piazza accepted the band director position at Stoneham Middle School for grades five through eight.
“I absolutely loved working with the middle school kids,” he said. “That age is a unique mindset.”
A job he loved ended in 1990 when Proposition 2-1/2 caused budget cuts that affected a number of school music programs statewide including Stoneham. Several interviews later, he was hired to teach at Norwood High School (NHS) by Paul Alberta, currently chief adjudicator of the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education (MAJE). NHS competes in the New England Scholastic Band Association circuit.
“I was concerned about the level of competition in the Norwood program,” Piazza noted. “I appreciate what Paul brought to me, but the philosophy of music in Norwood wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Competition is important, but it’s not everything.”
Piazza feels that competition and music education have been successfully balanced at MHS since he was hired in 1991 by Joan Toohey, then-music coordinator and choral director. At the time, the MHS’s music ensembles entertained publicly, but didn’t participate in competitions. Piazza got them involved in the district- and state-level festivals presented by MAJE and Massachusetts Instrumental Conductors and Choral Association.
Ensembles earning a Gold Medal rating at MAJE festivals then get to perform at the Boston Esplanade’s Hatch Shell. Under Piazza’s direction, this was achieved seven times by the MHS Jazz Ensemble and four by the Jazz Combo.
“It was a thrill for me to watch students’ expressions and for them to fully appreciate how they got there,” Piazza said. “The experience of performing at the Hatch Shell – on the stage that Arthur Fiedler and Keith Lockhart have been on with the Boston Pops – in some cases may be an experience of a lifetime. I’m proud of taking the program in those 28 years from providing public entertainment to giving them a well-rounded musical and life education experience.”
While Piazza will miss those types of experiences, he’s looking forward to no longer commuting from his home in Lakeville to Marlborough.
“I’m very organized, which works well in the public school system, but I’ll enjoy just taking it as it comes for a while,” he said. “That will get old real fast, so then I’ll hold onto something else and run with it.”