It was not unlike a day that has played out in Charlottesville for the past 69 years.
Parents rushed home from work to get their families ready. Sons and daughters wolfed down dinners and donned their crisp white shirts.
“I have a lot of good feelings about the whole thing,” said Ken Young, as he finished up the last bit of work Thursday afternoon so he could go watch his son perform at the 69th annual Spring Concert. Daniel Young, a senior, is one of five alto sax players in the Charlottesville High School’s wind ensemble.
“It’s not an easy task to direct such a large group of kids and do such high quality music continuously,” the elder Young said about retiring conductor Vincent J. Tornello.
“He wants the kids to perform and get the most out of what they can do within their ability, and he seems to be able to do so. They are always playing music that is at a much more difficult level.”
And they have done it very well — extremely well.
Under Tornello’s tutelage the CHS bands have been named a Virginia Honor Band for 27 years out of a possible 28. The young musicians also matched the state record by recording superior ratings for 28 consecutive years at the state marching band festival.
Thursday night, after 118 students filed into their seats, Tornello, wearing a black tux and bow tie, walked out on the CHS stage for the last time.
The lights dimmed as he raised the baton in his right hand.
“What he has taught these kids makes an impact, and it stays with them the rest of their lives,” said Jeanette Rosenberg, whose daughter Julia Perry is an award winning oboe player with the wind ensemble. “He represents the end of an era, and he has earned a lot of respect around the state. He is an institution.”
Hard, but fair
Tornello has been called guff, humble, an old-fashioned dad.
As he led the symphonic band through the “Washington Heights March,” he rocked back and forth, heel, toe, heel, toe.
Tornello is not above a raising his voice in his quest to illicit excellence from his charges, but he is not one to talk about himself either. Just the opposite.
Although he is in the Virginia Honor Band Hall of Fame and has won the Legion of Honor Award from the Sousa Foundation, Tornello shuns the limelight.
He stands on stage and directs the audience to cheer for the students.
The phrase most often used to describe him: He is hard, but he is fair.
“I like that,” said Tornello, who graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory of Music and earned a masters at the University of Virginia. “I have a level of excellence that I want the kids to achieve and that is what we are going to work to be, but at the same time they feel like they are part of the group.
“It’s not just the top players who get accolades. It’s the group, the whole group; that is the important thing.”
Tornello, whose younger brother, Joseph, teaches at Buford Middle School and serves as the assistant band director, has an applied major in alto saxophone. He minored in flute and piano. Some liken the Tornello brothers to the Dorsey brothers, two famed conductors who inspired the young Tornellos.
Vince Tornello knew he wanted to be a director since he was in the eighth grade. By the time he was 17, he was directing a band in his hometown of Oceanside, N.Y. In 1972 he was named the band leader at Lane High School.
“I was in the band when he started at Lane,” Cookie Ferrier said.
People call her a Band Aid, because she has been a member of the Band Boosters for years.
Service to the children
“I left to go to college, but my husband and I bought our house in the city in order for our children to go to Charlottesville High School to study under Vince Tornello,” she said. “That was the one condition that we told our Realtor.
“It was so important in my life. I don’t think the general public realizes the way he teaches and the values that he gives us.”
As Tornello was about to raise his baton to lead the wind ensemble in “Man of LaMancha,” he looked surprised as Ferrier walked up on stage with a hand full of local dignitaries.
The lights came up as the Band Booster thanked Tornello for 37 years of service and “more importantly, service to our children.”
The boosters gave him a gift card for $1,100. Letters were read, including one from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Arlington, who sent an American flag that had been flown above the capitol in Tornello’s honor.
Ned Michie, chairman of the Charlottesville School Board and a former student of Tornello’s in the mid-1970s, presented his former conductor with a special surprise — a plaque that will hang among hundreds of trophies and banners. The new plaque made it official, the room that served as home for thousands of CHS students will forever be known as the “Vincent J. Tornello Band Room.”
After all the gifts were graciously received, Tornello turned to the audience and said, “Thank you so much. We will continue playing music.”
The last four selections were selfishly selected, he said. “Wedding Dance” had been recommended by his son, “Espana Cani” was one of Tornello’s favorites, and “Tarantella” was a song that his grandmother used to ask him to play when he was a young boy.
Before he could get to the final song, his 17 seniors stood up and walked to the side of the stage, including Julia Perry, Emma Yackso, John Anderson and Carolyn McKenzie.
“When we were planning the senior gifts, we wanted to do something a little more memorable,” they chimed in, taking turns at the microphone.
They had written letters to 600 alumni, asking them to come to the concert or to send letters. They held out a silver gift bag filled with well wishes. And, with the help from the Band Boosters and the community members, the students established the Vincent J. Tornello Scholarship. A group hug followed.
But the obviously touched Tornello had one more song on his play list. His final song was the first song he had conducted back in his first year at the old Lane High School.
“Back in 1947, we did not have a school fight song,” Tornello said. “Sharon Hoose held a contest to come up with a song, and he wrote examples of how to do this.”
No one won the contest. But Hoose’s examples, taken from “The Rifle Rangers,” became the CHS fight song.
Tornello stepped off the podium midway through the song and let the band play.
“In high school, it is a breath of fresh air,” said Sharon Yackso, whose daughter Emma plays soprano clarinet. “You know what is expected of you when you walk in that band room. They found something concrete, something they could count on.
“He is like a good old-fashioned dad. He gives out accolades only when they are due, so you know he is sincere. That is why they want to please him. They totally adore both of those brothers.”
Back stage, the band members handed Tornello one last gift, a plaque that read “Thank You for Your Life Lessons.”
“He’s tough,” Yackso said. “He makes them work hard. He sees what they can do. It is definitely a job that he has done well. It’s about the kids and the product of excellence.”
The excellence radiates inside the room when the band practices daily.
“The first time I walked into the band room, it blew me away,” Yackso said. “It is wall to wall trophies. It’s like walking into a jewelry box. It is a microcosm of what has been going on there.”
Joshua Earlie said that he counted the trophies three years ago.
“It took me 30 minutes,” he said. “There were 412, but that is not all of them. More are in storage.”
Reporters closed in talk to the man in front of the band.
Yes, he plans on remaining in Charlottesville. He hopes to do some guest conducting and judge more competitions.
“I had always had aspirations to move to the college level,” Tornello said. “There were offers to make those kinds of moves, but the job requirements, the things they wanted me to do there were not better than what I was doing here.
“I have good kids and support from the community and rather than give that up and go somewhere else, I decided this is where I was going to finish out.”
Finishing out with 27 honor bands is remarkable. But among his most memorable accomplishments, he said, were performing at the Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas in 1988 and the Fiesta Bowl Parade and National Pageant in Phoenix in 1993. CHS was one of only 12 schools invited to perform in both those international events.
“The big picture is just making music,” he said. “For me it is taking the challenge of taking it from ground zero and working it and developing it, whether it is on the stage or on the field, just starting from the very, very beginning.
“That’s the knack of band directing or coaching, you start over every single year. If you are clever enough to know where you are weak or where you are strong, you exploit your strengths, and hopefully that works out and you become successful.
Making an impact
“On the other side, hopefully you make an impact on children. Hopefully down the line they will use the things that they have gained here. Not just playing an instrument, but the discipline, the self discipline that it takes to play an instrument. It’s difficult. It’s not easy. I’m hoping that will be a legacy in kids minds down the line.”
It already has been a legacy for years. As the parents and students walked out of the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center, there was chill in the air.
Cookie Ferrier stood in the Vincent J. Tornello Band Room and looked around.
“We’ve got band boosters who travel with us as chaperones who have kids who have been graduated for 20 years. This really is a legacy.
Her husband, Tom, called the room awesome, a room that will inspire future students to keep adding to Tornello’s goal of excellence.
“I am very happy for the Tornellos,” Tom Ferrier said, “and I wish him many, many years of retirement, but this is a sad evening tonight. We are losing a jewel in this crown.”