Things You Never Knew About Mr. Tamosaitis But Always Wanted to Ask

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Issue 16, Volume 108

By Veronika Kowalski 

Music teacher Joseph Tamosaitis can be seen strolling around the first floor with his briefcase in hand. Soft-spoken but brilliant, after earning a full scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, Tamosaitis decided to pursue a career in teaching. It was never a conscious decision to have music in his life; music always had to be in his life.

As a five-year-old, Tamosaitis was naturally drawn to the piano. Though his parents encouraged him to play, his drive came from within himself. At 11 years old, as soon as Tamosaitis auditioned for the East Northport Junior High School Orchestra in Long Island, his teacher Dr. Robert Padgett committed him to the double bass. There weren’t any double bass players in the orchestra, and Dr. Padgett saw inherent ability in Tamosaitis. “I really did not want to play the double bass,” he said. “But it became my main instrument.”

As a result, Tamosaitis was introduced to future Ithaca College Orchestra conductor Henry G. Neubert, who gave him private lessons on the double bass. Additionally, the humorous Professor Isaac Nemiroff of Stony Brook University taught him how to compose music. “Nemiroff was a very kind of encouraging and loving teacher. When he liked something you wrote, he’d say, ‘You really did it this time!’ in a way that may anger people,” Tamosaitis mused. “A lot of composers are like that. They’re really blunt. They really are.”

While still in high school, Tamosaitis played in the prestigious New York String Orchestra’s Christmas Eve seminar at Carnegie Hall. The principal cellist was 15-year-old Yo Yo Ma, who later put out 75 albums and won 18 Grammy awards. “Yo Yo was always so clever, and he knew it. But he became a completely different person after he went to Harvard,” Tamosaitis explained. As a teenager, Yo Yo Ma enjoyed causing minor mischief. It wasn’t until Ma entered Harvard that he took music more seriously.

“Most of what I learned for music, I learned it in high school. Most of what you learn will be from high school. When I went to Juilliard, I was doing the same things, maybe using the same techniques in a more advanced way, surrounded by people who played better. The teachers you have when you’re younger are more important. By the time you’re 17, you’re pretty much formed. And high school teachers—they do all the work. They really put you in the right direction,” Tamosaitis said. “It’s a tough job. It’s a frustrating job.”

Once he graduated from Juilliard, one of Tamosaitis’s first teaching jobs was at Ardsley Middle School in Westchester, New York. He taught a compulsory music appreciation class. Most of the students were animated, but there was one student who sat at the back of the class who did not speak as much. He was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and lanky. More than a decade after the child graduated from Ardsley Middle School, Tamosaitis saw his picture on the news. “I know that kid,” Tamosaitis said. He “hadn’t changed much at all.” The student was Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.

Tamosaitis started teaching at Stuyvesant in 1999. There was an opening for a position because chorus teacher Holly Hall left to sing in the Vienna State Opera. Tamosaitis knew Bernard Lieberman, the principal at the time since the 1970s, as a fellow bass player. “It was a lot of fun,” Tamosaitis recalled. “I didn’t know it would be so natural.”

Before then, Tamosaitis had taught students in middle school, in college, and in special education programs. “There’s no way of really comparing Stuyvesant,” Tamosaitis emphasized. “It’s so different.”

Tamosaitis featured the Symphonic String Orchestra in the Spring Concert on Friday, May 4. When asked about his favorite part of the performance, Tamosaitis replied, “The Bottesini,” without missing a beat. Giovanni Bottesini’s “Grand Duo Concertante” was chosen by senior Max Chan, who played the solo part for the double bass along with junior Sean Takada on the violin. Their flawless execution of even the most challenging parts of the piece stunned the audience as well as the rest of the orchestra.

“More people should have come to the concert,” Tamosaitis revealed. “There weren’t many people there in the audience, did you see? But we sounded really good. More people should come.” By the end of the evening, the audience was thinning, but the atmosphere was electric.

Tamosaitis had invited former math teacher Dr. Robert Maksudian to be a guest conductor for Alan Hovhaness’ Psalm and Fugue. This was a pioneering act, but because of Dr. Maksudian’s love of music and the teachers’ longstanding friendship, the piece was a great success.

When Tamosaitis isn’t teaching music theory or conducting his orchestra, he spends time with his wife, Colleen. He met her at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where he taught the double bass. She was a student of former principal flute player Alexander Murray of the London Symphony Orchestra. “Being a New Yorker at Urbana-Champaign, it was really lonely. But we became close friends. We were well suited for each other. She has a sense of what’s good and what’s not, musically. There’s no fooling her,” Tamosaitis remarked.