Ten years ago, Matt Palmieri came to St. Patrick School to build a band program from the ground up.
Back then, the effects of a recent recession were still being felt in many quarters, and music and arts programs were often a casualty of those hard economic times.
“Schools were getting rid of fine arts because they had to make cuts,” recalls principal Scott Czarnopys. “My vision was to do the exact opposite.”
So when Matt stopped by the school to inquire about job opportunities, it seemed like a gift. Indeed, it was, according to Scott, who describes Matt as a passionate educator with abilities that go above and beyond simply being able to play an instrument.
“He dispelled the stereotype of a specialist teacher just filling a spot,” Scott says. “He is a high-quality educator.”
This fall, Matt will take a full-time position with Grand Rapids Public Schools. While it is the right move for his career, Matt says he will deeply miss the students at St. Patrick School. As we say good-bye to this committed teacher, it only seems fitting to reflect on how far the band program has come under his direction.
Starting from Scratch
Today, all students in 5th-8th grade participate in the band program, but it was a much different situation 10 years ago.
“When I first started, we had a handful of kids who had played for one year at Lowell,” Matt remembers.
At that time, students who wanted to play a band instrument had to rely on parents to transport them during the day from St. Patrick School to Lowell Middle School and back again.
Once St. Pat’s launched its own band program, students were invited to join if they were interested. All but three signed up. They were split into two bands – a beginner band for 5th and 6th grade and an intermediate band for 7th and 8th grade.
“My approach was to get as many kids as possible to buy-in and get the experience,” Matt explains. He was so successful and the program so popular that it was soon converted into a regular part of the curriculum for all students to participate.
“It was so much easier for the classroom teachers to send them all,” according to Matt. And while a few students weren’t thrilled with the idea of band, most eventually warmed up to it. Matt recalls that one of the first students who didn’t want to be in band ended up liking it so much that he went on to play with the Lowell High School band.
Making Music as a Middle School Band
In those early years, the school was small enough that students would meet in the parish center’s music room – a relatively tiny space that was used by the church choir as well. Now, the band fills half a multi-purpose room when it comes time to practice.
One of the things that makes Matt most proud of the band is its ability to perform music written for much larger ensembles. For instance, this year, the advanced band played the Mini Suite by Morton Gould, a piece that has previously been designated for Division AA schools – the largest ones – during district band festivals.
The path to developing a fully formed middle school band hasn’t been without a few bumps. Of those, nothing was more challenging than trying to run a band program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID threw a wrench into things for all of us,” Matt says. There was a period of time when students didn’t play their instruments at all for safety reasons.
That means the band has spent a year trying to catch up for lost time, but Matt says it wasn’t all bad. “We did a lot more music theory and listening to [music] history,” he explains. Those are lessons they might not have had otherwise.
Value of Learning an Instrument
For Matt, the highlight of every year is taking the band to the annual district festival where students perform on a stage and receive feedback and ratings from judges. He also loves watching students progress from picking up their instruments for the first time in 5th grade to becoming competent musicians by 8th grade.
“In 5th grade, they are still very much kids,” he notes. “By the time they get to 8th grade, they are young adults almost.”
Many St. Patrick students have gone on to play in marching bands and concert bands at Catholic Central, West Catholic and Lowell High Schools. At least one graduate is now studying music at the college level thanks to a love of band that was sparked in Parnell.
Matt finds that even if students don’t plan to continue on in high school and college, learning an instrument teaches valuable skills that go beyond music. “It helps kids learn how to focus on a goal over the long term,” he says. That type of discipline “makes good humans.”
Scott adds that by having band at St. Patrick School, it provides kids with opportunities they might not have elsewhere. “There’s also obviously research about how a music program translates into success in different areas,” he says.
While Scott credits Matt with the success of the band program, Matt says he couldn’t have done it without the support of the principal and teaching staff. “[Scott] deserves credit for having the vision to start the program.”
What’s Next for the St. Pat’s Band Program
For 10 years, Matt Palmieri has been an integral part of the St. Patrick band program. His wife Julie has been ever supportive of his work, and Matt notes his daughters Amelia and Alice have patiently endured being carted from one band event to another.
“My time at St. Pat’s has been some of the best years I’ve taught,” Matt says. “It’s been my pleasure and privilege to start and build the band program at St. Patrick School.”
Although he leaves big shoes to fill, Scott says he’s actively looking for the next great band teacher to lead the St. Patrick middle school band, and the program should continue on as it has in the past.