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One Simple Conversation

Dr. C.Yesterday, I lost a friend, one of the most influential people in my life.  After a short illness, Dr. Nicholas J. Contorno (Nick or Dr. C. to his many friends and family) passed away.  As I sit here trying to find the words to say, I realize I already said them.  When Nick retired as Director of Music at Marquette in 2006, I wrote a short piece.  There was a mixup in communication, and I had been under the impression that I was going to speak at either his final concert or the reception afterwards, but that didn’t happen.  But Nick read this piece, and he remembered the exact situation I talk about.  And now that he’s passed, I think that it resonates even more.

One Simple Conversation

There are three people who have most influenced my life musically.  The first is Mrs. Rose-Marie Barton, my piano teacher who was able to first shape my musical talents almost a quarter-century ago.  Mrs. Barton first taught me how to make music and started me on the path.  The second is Vince DiCola, whose works I’ve admired, studied, and dissected for twenty years.  I’m proud to have had the opportunity to perform a song with him in front of my friends.

The third, and quite possibly the most influential, is Dr. Nick Contorno.  If it weren’t for one simple conversation we had in the fall of 1992, I would not be where I am today.  He may not remember the conversation we had, but I certainly do.

The only instrument I had ever really played was the piano.  In high school, I wasn’t in concert or marching band; only the jazz band had a place for a keyboard.  I never pursued playing anything else — until college.  That was when Dr. Contorno informed me that if I wanted to play piano in Marquette’s Jazz Band, I also needed to be in the Symphonic Band.  “Why don’t you play percussion?” he suggested to me at one of Marquette’s preview days.

So there I was that first week, freshman year, the fall of 1992, looking at pieces of music that made absolutely no sense.  Oh, the xylophone parts looked like piano music, in a way, but any time I might have previously picked up a pair of mallets would’ve been for a joke, not to seriously play.  And the rest of the percussion music?  Forget it; the sheets of music might have well been a foreign language for all I could decipher from them.

Maybe Dr. Contorno sensed my hesitation, because during rehearsal he looked right at me standing there in the back, not doing anything.  He motioned for me to play the crash cymbals.

“Yeah, right,” I thought.  “This is no place for me.  I need to drop Symphonic Band.  I don’t belong here.”

A few days later, I informed Dr. Contorno of my decision.

“Phil, why don’t you give it another try?”, he implored.  “I know you’re new to this, but I really think you can do it.  Don’t give it up just yet.  Try it one more time,” he encouraged.

It was a simple conversation but a life-changing one.

I did try one more time.  And guess what?  I started to like band.  Then I enjoyed band.  Then I loved band.  Then I knew I really did belong there.  Five short years later, I wished I had five more to spend on the stage.  And, in a way, I got more than that, as I spent many years in the Orchestra and other bands under Nick’s direction.

You’ll notice that I started out by calling him Dr. Contorno, but I’m ending it calling him Nick.  There’s a reason for that.  When we first met, I was in high school, and he was helping our jazz band with our competition pieces.  To me, he was “Dr. Contorno”.  When I was an unsure freshman, ready to quit band, he was still “Dr. Contorno.”

Now, he’s more than “Dr. Contorno” to me, more than just my college director.  He’s Nick — he’s my friend.  I love him and I thank him for not just directing me in music, but directing me to music.  Without him, the past nine years of my life — the best years of my life — would’ve been devoid of so much joy both in the form of songs I’ve played and the friends I’ve made.

All because of one simple conversation.

Thank you, Nick, and God bless.


I would only add one thought to this — I am not alone.  Over the many years of his teaching career — and after it, too — he touched so many lives in the exact same way.  There are hundreds if not thousands of people who had one simple conversation with Nick, and the courses of their lives were forever changed.

It’s only been a day, but I miss you immensely, Nick.  I hope to teach my son my love and your love for music.  I had hoped you’d be able to meet him some day, but instead, I will be sure to share with him the love and memories I have of you.

Love you, my friend.  Rest in Peace.

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