High school music director balances 'goofy' and 'intense'

Orchestra and band leader 'Mr. D' wants to teach the way he wanted to be taught.

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It's not easy to believe that Sabato D'Agostino was once a reluctant teacher.

In his nine years as director of the orchestra, jazz band, and pep band at Arlington (Mass.) High School, music participation has crescendoed. Nearly 100 pep-band players rock the bleachers at football games, up from just two dozen when he arrived.

Teaching was the only way this musician could find to make a living in his native Italy. Even when he came to Boston 12 years ago to study at Berklee College of Music, he was determined to be a performer. But gradually his teaching gigs held more appeal than wedding banquets. "When you play, you just give," a friend explained to him, but "when you teach, you give – but you get so much more back from the students."

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During the summer, dust has no chance to settle on the sheet music: Mr. D'Agostino – also known as Mr. D or Tino – pays a visit to the high school band room once a week to plan for the coming year's classes and performances.

He also teaches teen ensembles at Berklee during his "break." At a recent rehearsal, he gently chided one group of rockers for ending their song sloppily because they weren't watching him. Chomping a piece of gum, his bass guitar slung over his shoulder, he pleaded for them to be more energetic – "Otherwise, I'm going to have to make you dance."

On the first day of school, for the first 15 minutes, D'Agostino says he'll be as nervous as he was as a schoolkid decades ago. "Even though I know most of the kids ... I believe that the first day of school they come in the room and they judge you. That's the toughest audience you have – the students." Maybe that's why he plans a week in advance what he'll wear that day.

As a child, D'Agostino attended strict schools that practiced corporal punishment, so he's determined to create a comfortable atmosphere in his classroom. "I'm supposed to be the teacher, but most of the time I act like a student because I want to enjoy what I missed when I was a kid," he says with a sheepish grin.

That explains the balance he strikes between "intense" and "goofy."

On the one hand, he's all about respect: "If they practice, they respect what I ask them to do, they respect their peers – because if they become better musicians, we have a better orchestra." They're also expected to look sharp on stage, in part to practice for the "real world," where they'll need to dress for success at job interviews.

On the other hand, "when it's time to joke around, we joke around." Mr. D used to throw candy to the pep band in the stands at football games – until the band got super-sized. The players still choose their music, though. That makes for a pep-band repertoire that is "pretty wild," he says, but the students can't complain that they don't like the pieces.

D'Agostino's proclivity for dressing well – not to mention his shopping sprees while on vacation in Italy – is an irresistible target for students' teasing. They make a game of counting how many ties and pairs of shoes he has, he says. "That's one of those things that makes the room comfortable. I don't care if they make fun of me."

He constantly urges his students to work as a group – to listen closely to not just their own parts, but everyone else's, too. "The goal is not to have these kids play Beethoven, it's really to have them socialize, to become even better people.... I believe that when a group sounds good, it's because the people in the group get along.... I feel great walking in that room every day. I don't consider that work anymore.... For me, it's a hobby, and I get paid for it. I'm super lucky."

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