Twelve years ago, Nick Coacci sat in the middle of the Seaford Middle School band, bass clarinet at the ready, waiting expectantly for the conductor’s down beat. These days, it’s the fresh-faced 23-year-old Hofstra graduate who is holding the conductor’s baton with a natural grasp, guiding the 83 aspiring musicians in the middle school’s sixth-grade band.
“I knew what I wanted to do when I was 10,” Coacci said of his early experiences sitting in the middle of that mass of sound. “I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than directing that band.”
Many 10-year-olds make similar absolute statements, picturing themselves as standout athletes, dancers, rock ’n’ rollers or TV stars, but Coacci was the rare youth who remained true to his vision and had the ability to realize it.
Coacci, who said he does not come from a particularly musical family, began his music experience in elementary school, with clarinet lessons. “Lots of kids pick up the clarinet, because it’s the biggest section and it’s [one of] the easiest to learn,” he said. In middle school he switched to bass clarinet, but when he got to Seaford High School, there were no bass clarinets in marching band. Given a choice of saxophone or drums, he switched to saxophone. All three instruments use the same fingering patterns, so adaptations were mainly a matter of adjusting the embouchure — the way the mouthpiece is held in the mouth — and the size of the reed that is a part of that mouthpiece.
Coacci stuck with saxophone through his years at Hofstra, where he studied music education and played in the marching and concert bands. After graduation, he was a student teacher in the Glen Cove School District. As he was casting about for a full-time job, the position in Seaford opened up — a synchronicity, Coacci called it.
The middle school has three full-sized ensembles — the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade bands — as well as a jazz band and a pit band. Coacci’s sixth-graders play three full concerts a year — two winter concerts, in December, and the Spring Large Ensemble Concert at the end of the school year. They also play at SMS football games; march in local parades, including the Little League Parade and the newly inaugurated St. Patrick’s Day Parade; and take part in municipal events such as the Christmas tree lighting and the Hot Chocolate 5K Run.
Coacci is part of a team of music educators that includes high school band directors Anthony Romero and Christopher Coniglio, as well as his middle school colleague, marching band instructor Barbara Schwerin, who directs the seventh- and eighth-grade ensembles and whose experience includes six years as head of all music programs in the Seaford District.
Student musicians rehearse two or three times a week, and may also receive elective instruction in basic musicianship. Like most of the district’s music teachers, Coacci teaches those classes as well, delving into general music theory, sight-reading and the physics of music. “We meet in groups of four to six in place of one of their other classes,” he said.
Coacci pointed out that forming middle school students into band musicians has its own unique challenges. Wind instrument players’ mouths undergo several radical transformations as they grow that require them to almost start from scratch every few years. Coacci laughingly referred to them as “before braces, braces, and after braces.” In addition, the pressure of some brass instruments against the mouth — French horn and trumpet, in particular — is so intense that some teachers recommend avoiding serious training on them before the mid-teenage years. Even in the case of the clarinet — perhaps the easiest accommodation — the embouchure changes during Coacci’s “three phases of braces.”
And there are other, more personal challenges for middle school music teachers. With burnout always a danger, it’s natural to wonder how Coacci sees himself going the distance. “I can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else,” he says, “or anywhere else.” But for that to become a reality, he recognizes that he will need a combination of patience and the ability to inspire.
Many young musicians develop slowly. Listening to the sixth-grade band on a cloudy Thursday afternoon, it was sometimes an aural puzzle to recognize the parts intended by the composers and the parts unwittingly improvised by students whose ability to coordinate dots on the page with the keys on their instruments was somewhat less than consistent.
But Coacci seemed to have the right attitude for those situations. “I’m excited by the progress they’ve made just since the start of the year,” he said, sounding genuinely excited. “Already they’re learning to listen to each other.” He pointed to a number of especially talented musicians whom he expected to help lift the ensemble to a higher level of performance.
“We always have a few who make all-county,” Coacci said, referring to the county-wide ensembles that are formed each year under guest conductors to take on more challenging music than the students play in their respective schools. Both Coacci and Schwerin had such experiences during their middle school years, and still treasure the memories.
This early in the year, it appears Coacci is still enjoying the high of having landed his dream job. At the same time, though, he evinces a practical musicianship, as well as an understanding of what can and probably cannot be achieved with his band of 11-year-olds.
As he began to critique that afternoon’s rehearsal of a piece called “Irish Tune,” an arrangement of the classic “Danny Boy,” Coacci’s eyes lit up as he described the middle wind instruments’ evolving awareness of their role with the piece’s melody. “You could see they were starting to really understand their part in the middle of the whole,” he said excitedly. “I can’t wait to see how much better they’re going to get!”