Former PTHS music teacher returns to help teach clinic


A musical clinic for two school districts would be rare enough, but the clinic and performance for the public that followed on May 10 also heralded the brief return of a much-loved teacher to the Port Townsend High School campus.

While Dr. James Ray, the head orchestra director at Port Angeles High School, directed the string sections of the Port Townsend and Bremerton High School bands, the remainder of the two schools’ instrumentalists were directed by Mark Adamo, who served as Port Townsend High School’s band, choir and orchestra teacher from 1986-98.

The students had two hours to prepare playing a selection of works from Mozart, Bach, Whear and Nishimura, before presenting them at a free performance in the PTHS gym immediately after wrapping their rehearsals.

“The difference between professionals and amateurs is how much time it takes them to recover from mistakes,” Adamo told his students after a flubbed note. “You just have to keep on going.”

At the same time, Adamo emphasized the importance of allowing musical selections to “breathe,” and even described silence as what “frames” a song, similar to framing a picture.

Adamo currently serves as director of the orchestra and jazz band at Shorecrest High School where he continues to produce excellent programs, and conducts the Debut Symphony Orchestra for the Seattle Youth Symphony.

But even after a pair of 2018 recognitions, from being inducted into the Washington Music Educators Association Hall of Fame to being named the Honored Alumnus in the College of the Arts and Humanities’ Music Department by Central Washington University, Adamo still remembers the many festivals and trips his PTHS music students took under his wing.

“Both the band and orchestra programs grew to their largest numbers, and were well known as the highest quality programs in Washington state,” said Daniel Ferland, current band and orchestra teacher at PTHS.

Adamo credited music with helping him get through a tough childhood, and agreed with Ray that the artistry of learning how to play music can often make less of a difference in the students’ lives than gaining a social network and support system through their music-minded peers.

“Everyone talks about project-based learning now, by emphasizing real world applications rather than lectures, but we’ve been doing that all this time,” Ray said. “The skills they pick up here can be transferred to any aspect of their lives.”

Adamo even choked up as he extolled the ability of music to foster connections and empathy between people, as he recalled how PTHS gave him his first shot as a teacher, right out of college.

“I got hired Aug. 15, which was my birthday,” Adamo said. “I think my parents were just happy to get me out of the house.”

When conducting a concentrated musical clinic, as opposed to teaching musical students over the course of multiple classroom sessions, Ray and Adamo agreed that it was their duty to determine where their clinic students were already functioning, in terms of skill level, as well as what goals they’re working toward.

“I touch base with their instructors, so that I can help reinforce what those instructors are already telling them,” Adamo said. “I want to give them positive encouragement, so that they’ll stick with it.”

Ray compared the clinics to “speed-dating,” and echoed Adamo’s emphasis on getting the students excited, rather than being overly critical.

“You want to share the joy of music,” Adamo said. “Humor can help build relationships really quick, especially if you’re using it to acknowledge that you, as their teacher, can make mistakes too.”

After the students were applauded for their performance, Adamo was surrounded by a throng of his former students at PTHS.

“It amazes me that you guys actually have kids of your own now,” Adamo said. “You’re all grown up.”

“Sort of,” said Brian Tracer, now 48.

Adamo pointed out that his first graduating class of seniors has turned 50, and was impressed by the renovations the high school has undergone since his time there, but he was most touched that so many of his old students would welcome him back, even if only for a day.

“Everyone was always so nice here, even though I made so many mistakes,” Adamo said.

“You’re the reason a lot of us came to school in the first place,” Tracer said.

“You know that’s not true,” Adamo said. “You had basketball.”

Gus Sebastian described Adamo as “the most passionate teacher I ever had,” while Jamie Gilliland insisted he’d touched more young people’s lives than he knew.


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