said, “Well, I guess we better get you home to a piano.” Taranto, who will retire at the end of this year--his thirtieth at Episcopal--was on the faculty when he began writing Evangeline, his first of five musicals. A touring company had visited the Lower School and acted out the Acadian diaspora when Taranto was taken with the story, by the history. “Imagine these people being kicked out and families being separated,” he says. With theater, Taranto explains, it is about the narrative, of course, and the Acadian expulsion, written about by many, including Longfellow, is a compelling story. Musical theater takes storytelling a step further, though, weaving in song strategically where dialogue alone might fall flat. Taranto started to craft the story in his mind and write the music that would move the narrative along, eventually collaborating with Jamie Wax and workshopping the pieces right here at Episcopal.
Evangeline’s run at Episcopal is a very public and celebratory way to mark the end of a full teaching career. But, as any teacher knows, there are days--most days--that lack any sort of fanfare or applause. “What do you think, trumpets? B-flat? Still some wrong notes in there,” Taranto says from his podium at the front of the band. His own trumpet is perched on a stand beside him at the ready just in case he needs to demonstrate a sequence. He moves on to the woodwinds, then percussion. Section by section he gives individualized feedback before assembling the entire 50+ person band. Taranto may physically be at the front of the ensemble and standing atop a platform, but this is no hierarchy. This is collaborative learning in the purest sense. This is a community.
It is easy to see how intrinsically “student-driven” arts education is. While an instructor can critique and provide direct instruction, the student simply has to struggle and fail with persistence on their own in order to grow. Taranto offers compassionate critique to his students and empowers each of them toward owning their progress.
And he acknowledges the guts it takes to perform, especially as a beginner. “There is no hiding. There is no third string, no benching,” he says. “Third trombone is as important as first.” A beginner who is struggling may want to shrink away, but Taranto assures his students that the struggle is part of the process--that every musician has been there.
The band room is a revolving door of students who want to practice or collaborate on their own time during the school day. “It is gratifying for me when kids come in and work out tunes and play together just for fun,” he says. “I can hear my own influence on them, and they don’t need me. They work it out on their own.”
Taranto, like all Episcopal Arts faculty, is a true teaching-artist. He’s an accomplished trumpet player and composer and enjoys playing in his own 70s funk horn band around town called Hai Karate. He has been a music minister at his church for over 40 years and he directs the faculty band.
Research supports arts integration as part of a full academic experience. There are formal studies, to be sure, that can attest to the super cool neurological stuff at work when a child listens to or plays music. But it’s hard to ignore what simple observation reveals, too, and the palpable energy-change from the beginning of class to the end. “They come to life and are pepped up,” Taranto explains. I feel it too. The Upper School band rehearsal I sat in on is still weeks away from the final performance. There are mistakes, false starts, wonky intonations. But the collective struggle and the collective effervescence is inspiring. Taranto says now that when he looks at the pieces he’d chosen for the Upper School band this semester, he realizes that he’s challenging his students more than he ever has, that he hasn’t selected so many tough pieces in one run. Though he adds, “They are rising to it.”
Evangeline, born and workshopped right here at Episcopal, will mark Taranto’s retirement. He says he has been enjoying this year more than ever, that each day is simply a lot of fun. “I can’t imagine a better way to finish a career.”
Don’t miss the chance to see Taranto and the Wind Ensemble and Middle School and Upper School Concert bands perform their final concert of the school year on Wednesday, April 25th at 7 pm on the main stage. Admission is free.
Katie Sutcliffe has served in many capacities involving writing and service learning over the last six years at Episcopal. Currently, she directs the Thesis Program, teaching both Seminar juniors and Thesis seniors, and is the co-creator of LAUNCH, Episcopal’s annual TEDx-style student-planned and executed showcase of ideas and projects. Katie’s own history involves this blend of service and writing: after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Indiana with an English degree, she moved to the Deep South with Teach For America where she taught middle school English and worked passionately on issues of educational inequity. She later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Baton Rouge where she has continued freelance writing. Katie infuses social justice initiatives into her curricula and seeks to help her students make meaningful connections with those living a different experience within our larger community. She’s passionate about character education and project-based learning, as well as research and writing that have practical implications for understanding and addressing real world challenges.