Sometimes Fairy Tales Come True

With Renee Fleming, fellow Crane School of Music grad

The nine-year-old nervously walked into his first trumpet lesson with six other classmates. Within a half hour, they had mastered the art of making awful sounds with no discernible pitch. A year later, the now ten-year-old walked into his first band rehearsal and there was a brand-new teacher. Mr. Maiello was intense, no, make that terrifying. His rehearsals were high energy and he demanded we actually play well and sound good! When you didn’t, you got a frightening glare that made sure you practiced before the next rehearsal.

Two more years of band went by and despite his best efforts, the boy started to slip lower and lower in the trumpet section. He just couldn’t play the increasingly higher notes and was destined for a lifetime of third trumpet parts. One day, the band director pulled him aside and told him his trumpet days were over. That afternoon, he struggled to get off the bus with a full-sized sousaphone and a sousaphone chair. The teacher didn’t have time to give him lessons so he handed him a Rubank Elementary method book and said, “I think you can teach yourself; it’ll be fun!” Thankfully, his family lived in the country with no close-by neighbors to wonder why elephants were mating in the boy’s bedroom.

Two years later, the boy auditioned for the all-state band and won first chair. At the first rehearsal, the band met Dr. William Revelli. Within 30 minutes, and regularly for the next three days, someone left rehearsal crying due to the pressure-filled rehearsals. Having survived the Maiello glare at a young age, being raised by a WWII combat veteran, and belonging to a high school band with a “high demand” director, the boy thought, “Why are they leaving, this is what band is like and we sound great?!”

Still trying to play tuba

Having “conquered” the all-state band, the next year he auditioned for the all-state chorus and arrived to find Howard Hanson on the podium. What an experience! The next year, he scored the all-state trifecta by winning the only tuba chair in the orchestra.

College auditions followed and, in the fall, he entered the Crane School of Music as a music education major. He walked into his first band rehearsal and on the podium was….. Mr. Maiello in his first year of college teaching. The other musicians weren’t ready for the pace and intensity of the rehearsal. Ha-ha!!

That semester he learned the most important lesson of his professional life. Show up on time and ready to work and you’ll often succeed when your more talented peers don’t. The Crane Wind Ensemble was in their final rehearsal for a performance at Eastman Hall. At 7PM sharp, the rehearsal room door was locked. Several minutes later, a senior tuba player came running down the hall and knocked on the door. Professor Elliott Delborgo opened the door and asked if the student was alright. After ensuring there was no life-threatening injury, he told the senior he could go home because he was out of the group. I was standing there to listen to the rehearsal through the door and had my tuba. Prof. Delborgo asked if I owned a tux and when I said yes, he said, “Go sit down, you’re playing the concert.”

Also, during that semester, a senior walked up to the freshman and asked if he was a tuba player. After he answered yes, he handed him an electric bass and said, “I think you can teach yourself; it’ll be fun!” That led to a way to pay for school because a bass player who can read and play by ear and sing will always find work.

After three years at Crane (yes, a degree in three years) and two years in graduate school, the search for a job was on. Sure that there would be a multitude of colleges and universities longing to hire him as a tuba instructor, he soon learned the harsh realities of the music business. Way too many talented people chasing too few great jobs.

The prospect of unemployment led him to a recruiting station with all four services represented. He went to each one to see who had the best deal and enlisted in the Army for three years as a private with the goal of saving a little money, getting educational benefits, and then getting a doctorate to win that coveted college teaching job.

What he discovered was an organization that was looking for hard workers with talent. They didn’t care if your family was wealthy, didn’t care where you went to school, and didn’t care “who you knew.”

So, over the next 37+ years, the fairy tale came true. The struggling fourth grade band kid from a rural school and a blue-collar family eventually met seven U.S. presidents, countless members of royalty and heads of state, and even a pope. He performed in 56 countries and all 50 states. Oh, and the scary Mr. Maiello is one of his dearest friends. So, for all the music kids out there; work hard, show up on time, always do your best, and your fairy tale may come true as well.

ThomasPalmatier.com