Mr. DiFronzo’s problem

Mr. DiFronzo was my elementary school music teacher, charged with teaching eight-year-old me how to play the saxophone.

Mr. DiFronzo was mean. If I made a mistake he yelled. If I misbehaved he yelled. If I forgot to wear a tie to the band’s performance he made me wear a pink polka dot tie made out of construction paper (!). Once, when a clarinet player made a mistake too many times in a row, Mr. DiFronzo made the poor boy stand up in front of everyone to be shamed. We were all made to jokingly applaud his mistakes.

Mr. DiFronzo terrified me.

For some reason, I took private lessons with Mr. DiFronzo at his house over summers. To my amazement Mr. DiFronzo was completely different one-on-one: he was patient, caring, and soft-spoken. If I hadn’t practiced that week–which happened with some frequency–Mr. DiFronzo didn’t seem to mind. He taught me all the same.

For three months out of the year Mr. DiFronzo was mild-mannered. For nine months out of the year he was hot-tempered. I still wonder which was the real Mr. DiFronzo.

One day when I was in fifth grade our principal came in to tell us that Mr. DiFronzo had had a heart attack; he was out walking with his wife the previous evening when be became short of breath and had to be taken to the hospital. I saw Mr. DiFronzo many years later volunteering at a Shea’s musical. I’m sure he was retired by then, and he looked just like the Mr. DiFronzo I knew over summers; he smiled and waved to me.

I like to think that Mr. DiFronzo really wanted to teach music to young people, but what he found was that most young people didn’t want to learn music, so he had to force them into compliance, and that was stressful for him. He didn’t need to do that over the summer, when students chose to come to him instead. It was hard for Mr. DiFronzo to find students in a traditional classroom enrolled in the journey of learning music.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s worth being really clear that there is a problem.