NORWALK, Conn. -- Jeff Bellagamba loves teaching music at West Rocks Middle School in Norwalk. Any educator who has been working in the same position since Jimmy Carter was president, disco was king and “Dallas” was a television show and a city, certainly retains an enduring passion for his job.
“I think I fell in love with the age of the kids,’’ said Bellagamba, who has been teaching for 37 years, 36 of them at West Rocks. “I really do like the kids at this age.”
Bellagamba teaches 160 students in grades 6 to 8 at West Rocks, with about 50 to 55 students in each grade. He said his methodology combines musical foundation, hard work and attention to the needs of students. “It’s the same every year,’’ he said. “I want to see every student have success on their instrument. We’ll do whatever it takes to have them do it.”
Unlike many districts, Norwalk students do not play instruments until they reach middle school. Bellagamba is often the first instructor.
“I start with the fundamentals, just teaching them how to hold the instrument correctly,’’ he said. “Then we work on producing a good sound with only the mouthpiece. We make sure they can have good sound with that. Once they do that, we start with the first three notes. We make a clear sound on those before we even open up a book.”
The key, Bellagamba said, is practice. While many young musicians can step on an athletic field or even solve a math problem and excel quickly, musical instruments can be entirely different.
“Some kids want to play a complete band piece right away,’’ he said. “The flutes, the clarinets, the trumpets, they all have their own part. We don’t accomplish a full piece until halfway through the year. It’s like a team. Practice is an important discipline.”
Bellagamba requires students to practice for two hours each week. Most times, he can identify students who shirk their responsibilities.
“There are times it’s easy to tell, but sometimes I get it wrong, too,’’ he said. “I’ll get students who struggle and parents will tell me that’s funny, because he or she is practicing. We use a practice card, which lets the parent, student and teacher know how much they’re practicing. If they’re still not successful, they can come in for extra help.”
Bellagamba feels fortunate to have the support of the school’s administration, led by Principal Lynne Moore and Vice Principal Joseph DeVellis. “They’ve constantly promoted and supported our concerts throughout the years,’’ he said. “They are the music program’s biggest supporters.”
His colleagues at West Rocks have also been instrumental in the band’s success, Bellagamba said. "I am grateful to the core subject teachers and their patience with my requests for pull out lessons, which disrupt the flow of the classroom,'' he said. "These teachers also understand the importance of music in a child's life."
Bellagamba’s persistence has helped scores of students throughout his nearly four decades of teaching. He remembered one student who struggled mightily with academics, music and class participation just a few years ago.
“I suggested that he leave the program, but I could tell he and his parents did not want that,’’ Bellagamba said. He tried to work with another instrument with the student, again without success. Finally, after months of individual lessons, Bellagamba saw the student make progress.
“He began to have a sense of accomplishment,’’ he said. “He was feeling good about himself and his abilities. I could see the pride in his face, and it was a good moment for me as well.”
Bellagamba’s early tutelage is evident in the award-winning programs at Norwalk and Brien McMahon, which are among the state’s most decorated marching bands. Bellagamba is one of the educators who planted the seeds for musical roots of some of the district’s most accomplished musicians.
“I’ve never tired of teaching,’’ Bellagamba said. “I believe I have as much energy and enthusiasm as when I started. When a student can’t play something and then they come back and I hear them playing it much better, it gives me a great sense of pride. That’s what I love about teaching.”
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