The music world lost a great person recently. I’m not talking about Dolores O’Riorden, though her passing is very sad. I’m talking about someone you probably haven’t heard of, but who I feel had a much bigger impact on the world of music than he’ll ever get full credit for.
Tony DeAngelis, or “Mr. D” as I knew him, was my music teacher in grammar school. I knew him for just under a decade of his 54 years of teaching, but he had a profound impact on my life, and I probably wouldn’t be devoting time to a blog about music if not for him.
I knew of Mr. D from my earliest years in school. He was the conductor of the band at my little elementary school, and I would see him twice a year when I would attend the winter and spring assemblies. Students weren’t allowed to join the band until fourth grade, so in my primary school days it was just me sitting through the chorus and band concert like a typical fidgety child. But I did love the band, and looked forward to being a part of it someday.
When my eligibility came around finally, I had a difficult decision to make: what instrument should I play. Most of the girls in my class were picking flute or clarinet. Most of the guys were picking drums or brass instruments, with a few of them choosing saxophone. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to play. I was worried my indecision would keep me from being a part of the band. Mr. D wasn’t worried though. Like Olivander in the wand shop in the Harry Potter books, he was infinitely patient, knowing that there was a perfect instrument for each child. For an indecisive child like myself, he was willing to take his time and find just the right fit.
I tried trumpet first. My dad played trumpet when he was in school. He was good enough to earn a solo in his senior year, playing Bugler’s Holiday. He would still pull out his trumpet from time to time and play along with the Doc Severinsen or Maynard Ferguson album he was listening to. I, however, did not take to trumpet. I couldn’t get my head around the whole “buzz, don’t blow” idea of brass instruments. I skipped trying the rest of the brass because of it. I also skipped flute and saxophone. I didn’t like the sound of either of them. Mr. D suggested maybe drums, but I wanted none of that. I liked the idea of it, but did not like the idea of the company I would keep in the drum section. Some of my least favorite classmates (bordering on bullies to me) were trying out for drums. So, in a final, desperate bid, I gave the clarinet a shot. I liked the sound it made, and it seemed pretty natural. I only squeaked four or five times while attempting to play it. So clarinet it was. I auditioned, and got a part in the third row of clarinets. My parents were delighted, and we went and bought a clarinet for me to practice on at home.
And so I started my “career” with the Lyncourt concert band. Band practice was always before the school day, so Mondays through Thursdays I would show up about 45 minutes before the start of the school day to practice whatever pieces Mr. D was working on for our bi-yearly concerts.
I played clarinet for only a year, though, before I got frustrated that most of the parts for a “third clarinet” were unexciting. I tried to get better, but there was a bit of a logjam of clarinet players ahead of me. Mr. D, again patient and understanding, suggested bass clarinet. No one in the band was playing bass clarinet, and that would be a great voice to add. So I switched. Thankfully, the school had a bass clarinet that I could use, so my parents didn’t have to spend more money and I could take that home to practice. I liked bass clarinet a lot more, and played that for two years. In my second year, a girl named Valerie joined me on bass clarinet, and we did add a much needed voice to the music. There are some things that a baritone sax, which had been taking the “bass clarinet” parts before our arrival, just couldn’t pull off.
Valerie moved on from our school to high school, and I was alone in my “section” again at the start of seventh grade. One day, when I had gone to the band room for study hall, I started messing around with some instruments that no one ever played. Along the back wall, right in the middle of the room, there was a rolling cart with a well worn case on top of it. Next to this was a pair of timpani drums. In the whole time I had been a part of the band, I had never seen anyone play those timpani, and I had no idea what was in the case. Mostly, that was where the brass section put their coats in the winter time.
When I moved the rolling cart out a little bit and opened the case, I discovered a glockenspiel. Many years ago, my mom had attempted to get me to learn the piano. I had taken less than a year of lessens, but I wasn’t very good. My dyslexia kept getting my right hand and left hand confused, so I could play the simple one-handed exercises, but failed miserably when I had to use both hands. Because of that, I recognized the layout of the bars in the case. Two old sets of mallets were also in there, one made of hard plastic and one made of wrapped thread. I picked up one of the hard plastic ones and and struck the bells. It made a loud tone that surprised me and Mr. D, who had been playing on his bassoon while I wandered around the room. I switched to the soft mallets after that. I grabbed a piece of music someone had left on one of the stands, a trumpet part for one of the pieces we were trying out for the winter concert. I moved a stand over, but the sheet on it and picked up both soft mallets tentatively. I started to play.
After a few measures, I started to get the hang of it. I was still a little timid when striking it, but I was getting better. Mr. D put his bassoon on its stand and wandered over. He thoughtfully watched me, without me realizing it (I’ve never been good at sight reading, so I was laser focused on the notes on the page). He inched his way closer, not wanting to break my concentration. When I reached a stopping place, I looked up to see him smiling at me.
“You’re not bad at that,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He then showed me how to properly hold the mallets. I had a stiff death-grip on them. I tried again, knowing roughly how it should sound and just trying to get the rhythm down. He stopped me and pointed out that I was using too much arm. With each hit I was pivoting at the elbow. He showed me how to use my wrists instead. I got better. I looked up to see him smiling at me.
“The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter.”
After giving it another couple of tries, I officially decided to switch over to mallet percussion. Mr. D gave me an old xylophone that had been gathering dust in the closet for years to take home and practice with. My parents took me to a music store where I bought a couple of sets of mallets for myself. I practiced. I got even better. A lot of the pieces we played did not have a set part for either glockenspiel or xylophone part written for them, so sometimes I would get a flute part or a clarinet part to play. I took to it really well. So well, in fact, that Mr. D decided I should get a solo in my eighth grade year. He liked to do this for all of the kids who had shown aptitude and dedication to the band before they moved on to high school. So, at the spring concert, three of us had solo performances. The flutist did a decent rendition of The Rose as a solo piece without accompaniment. I can’t remember what the clarinetist played, but she was accompanied by the band. My piece was selected for me by Mr. D himself. He had adjusted the arrangement of a piece called Fiddle Faddle so that it would be a solo piece for me, accompanied by the rest of the band. Funny enough, Fiddle Faddle was written by Leroy Anderson, the same person who wrote Bugler’s Holiday. I excelled at it, to beaming pride from my parents and applause from everyone.
Having graduated from Lyncourt, you would think that was the end of my story with Mr. D. My solo at Fiddle Faddle is a pretty good note to go out on, but it isn’t the end of my involvement with Mr. D. You see, Mr. D used to run a program called “select band.” This was a concert band composed entirely of former students and community members that would get together during the summer and put on two shows in the Lyncourt area and one show at the Music Pier in Ocean City, New Jersey. This effort was funded by the people involved, and by an annual Spaghetti Supper put on at the school, complete with auctions and raffles. Mr. D would always be the one serving the spaghetti, made with his own sauce, while wearing an apron and a big floppy chef’s hat. This was a group of the best alumni of Mr. D’s concert band, including some professional musicians that would come back just for this year after year mixed with high school and college kids who had been part of the program and loved being in Mr. D’s band. The pieces were a little more advanced than the ones we used while we were in school, but the caliber of musicians was always up to the challenge. Mr. D also liked to do spotlight pieces here. Frequently some of his prodigies would get featured, liked Sean who played trumpet and has since gone on to a music career in L.A. My first year in select band, I didn’t expect much. But Mr. D had other ideas, and an encore performance of Fiddle Faddle made the final cut of our performance list. To a crowd of tourists in New Jersey, Mr. D touted my ability and the ease of which I picked up such a challenging piece at such a young age. Thankfully, the lights in my face were really bright and I couldn’t see the crowd, otherwise I would have been in for a spectacular failure.
I did select band after eighth grade, and again after my freshman, sophomore and junior years of high school. I loved every minute of it, and had no qualms of giving up most of my July to it. In my final year of doing select band, after my junior year of high school, Mr. D decided it was time for me to do another solo. This time, he selected Comedian’s Galop. He rearranged it a bit so that I would have all of the melody and the band would just kind of “back me up.” The more we practiced it, the better I got at it. My wrist speed was improving, and muscle memory was driving me right through the song. During one rehearsal, I got a little carried away. I started outpacing the rest of the band. Mr. D noticed, and jokingly admonished me for it. Instead of going back and trying again as we had been, he came up with an idea. Mr. D was more than just a conductor, he was a showman, too. He suggested that I play the piece as fast as I want to, and he and the band would just “try to keep up.”
I loved the idea, and to my surprise, so did the rest of the band. Comedians’ Galop, as written, comes it at about a minute and a half. By the time of our first performance, I had shaved about fifteen seconds off of it. So, for our first performance, Mr. D starts talking to the crowd about me and about the piece we were about to play. He always introduced every piece with a short speech about it or what it was from or who it was by or the musician he wanted to point out. He started talking about how I kept wanting to do the piece faster, and made up some story about a “world record.” A lot of people brought their kids to our show, since it was like our little, local version of a pops orchestra. He took his watch off, and walked over to a child sitting with her mother. He handed his watch to the child, asking her to time us (“with the help of your mom here”). I came in at one minute, twelve seconds. At our second performance a couple of nights later, he went through the same exercise, adding the time for my performance just recently as the “time to beat.” I cam in at one minute, five seconds that time. For our final performance, at the Ocean City Music Pier, the story got grander. He started going on about getting it “under a minute” and was calling it “possibly the fastest performance ever at the Music Pier.” He got the whole crowd into it, and they were eating it up. There were jokes about me rushing it because “that’s what teenagers do” coupled with glowing praise for my ability. I was focused. I was excited. Mr. D looked over at me, raised his arms, and winked.
When I finished, the crowd applauded and I bowed. Then Mr. D asked the question. How fast? Someone yells out, “Fifty-eight seconds!” and the crowd erupts into a second round of applause. It was a really great moment.
Everybody has a teacher or teachers in their life that are important to them. Whether it is someone that introduced you to an exciting new concept, or lit a flame that carried you all the way to your career, there are teachers out there that do more than spit out facts and assign essays and grade tests. There are teachers that change people’s lives, and by doing so change to world. I would not have the appreciation for music that I do if not for Mr. D. I would have a lot less belief in myself if not for Mr. D. I would be more unwilling to try my hand at something new if not for Mr. D. And I know I’m not alone. Tony DeAngelis affected the lives of thousands of children in his half century as a teacher.
Anthony DeAngelis was a loving husband, a proud father, a great cook, a wonderful teacher, an accomplished musician and a good man. He passed away at the age of 87 late last week, and the world has a little bit less music in it. But his influence was felt in so many people, including a guy who is staring down forty and writing a blog about it, and holds the world record for fastest performance of Comedians’ Galop at the Ocean City Music Pier.