For Mel McConnell `69, music at Bishop Guilfoyle has come full circle, going from student to teacher, and leaving behind a legacy of growth and success.
As a student, Mel was heavily involved in many of the music programs at BG, including Chorus, Concert Band, Marching Band and the Pep Band. He first joined the groups as new way to meet people and make music at the same time, but it quickly evolved into an all-encompassing part of his daily life. “Many of my high school memories revolve around my participation in music,” he says.
As a musician at Bishop Guilfoyle, Mel felt that music was the ultimate equalizer. “Music Ensembles are open to everyone,” he says. “Not everyone is an athlete. Not everyone can be a leader. However, when a band is ready, every single member performs. No one stands on the sidelines.” Mel feels that all students can benefit from this experience. “What a great lesson to learn that everyone in the group must work hard to achieve success. Working together towards a common goal was the best lesson I could have learned in high school.”
"Not everyone is an athlete. Not everyone can be a leader. However, when a band is ready, every single member performs. No one stands on the sidelines."
Upon graduation, music was such an essential part of his life, that Mel felt a natural calling to become a music educator. Taking with him lessons from his time as a student, Mel felt prepared to continue his journey in education. “Being a member of the band helped me become independent both as a musician and as a person,” he recalls. “It also taught me to work with other team members to achieve goals.”
To satisfy his desire to teach, Mel attended and graduated from Edinboro State University with a degree in Music Education. Returning to his roots, Mel joined the BG faculty as music teacher and Band Director from 1973 to 1978. During his tenure, Mel was able to connect with his students on a personal level, “I brought with me a wealth of memories of what I experienced in music as a student at BG.”
As a teacher, Mel focused on providing each student the best music experience possible, including reviving the weakened band. “When I arrived in 1973, the BG Band had dwindled to only 15 members. I am proud to say that when I left in 1978, there were more than 100 students involved in the band.” Not only did Mel resurrect an endangered program, but he developed it into something larger than it had ever been. “We had Band members, Honor Guard, Marauderettes and an award-winning Majorette Squad!” he proudly exclaims.
"I am proud to say that when I left in 1978, there were more than 100 students involved in the band."
On the heels of success at BG, Mel went on to share his ability and talent for teaching with other students outside of Altoona. Finally, after 39 years of teaching, Mel retired and returned to his original stomping grounds, currently serving his third year as Bishop Guilfoyle’s Elementary Band Director. “Our goal is to rebuild our BG band into one that we can really be proud of. I work very closely with Brett Keith, the current BG music teacher. Working together, our goals are coming to fruition!” And, with his track record, success in this endeavor isn’t hard to imagine.
The secret to Mel’s success in the late 1970s was his ability to reach out and connect with students outside of the high school. When Mike Lastort `80 (left) was still in middle school, he was approached by Mel to consider joining the BG band. “I was taking saxophone lessons as a 7th grade student at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Mel McConnell was trying to build up the BG band,” he recalls. For Mike, this was a unique opportunity and one that he embraced. “I was a pretty shy kid and being in the band with a bunch of high schoolers really helped me become more of an extrovert.”
"Arts in general are such an important part of life, and an early appreciation of the musical arts can open the door to other art forms."
When Mike entered BG, he was already familiar with many of the students and of course, the programs, themselves. That made an easy transition for him, and he ended up participating in Marching Band, Pep Band and Pit Orchestra throughout his high school years. He fondly recalls the special times spent with his peers and friends, including the long bus trips to football games, marching in the Christmas parade, playing in the Pep Band, the Christmas concerts and making it to district band.
Exposure to these types of musical program at a younger age than most truly influenced Mike’s success as a student and in general. “To this day, I can pick up learning foreign languages pretty quickly. I’m also pretty good with computers and math. I think my music education has helped with those skills,” he says.
Today, Mike works for a small IT company in Georgetown, with an office overlooking the Potomac. But, music is still very much a part of his life, playing in a local rock band and taking saxophone lessons from the director of Jazz Studies at Georgetown University.
Looking back, Mike places a lot of value on his music education. “Music programs are important because they expose kids to the artistic world though music. Arts in general are such an important part of life, and an early appreciation of the musical arts can open the door to other art forms.”
For both Mel and Mike, the impact that music has had and continues to have on their lives are strongly tied to BG. Through their participation, they have left their mark on programs that continue to thrive and be enjoyed by students for generations to come.