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Nick Ronaghan

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I vividly remember the first time I ever had any interaction with Mr. Nick Ronaghan, the chorus teacher at Skyline Middle School. It was quite by accident, actually. I wasn’t even in his class. But for whatever reason, Mr. R. was called in to substitute for the band director during last period one day early in my 6th grade year. He warned us ahead of time that he had never conducted a band before. “Oh, great,” I thought to myself, “He has very little idea of what he’s doing, and the people in my class have the attention span of gnats. How could this possibly work?” And yet somehow…well, it didn’t right away, regardless of what you might have thought would happen. Mr. R. gave everyone a second chance to shut up, and eventually had to crack down on them. “I’m not sure how you behave for Mr. Gleason, but I am not Mr. Gleason. I suggest you treat me with respect or I will send you to the office.” We were all somewhat fear-stricken, but I was surprised. I hadn’t had a teacher yet who dealt with poor behavior so matter-of-factly, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Mr. R. after this. His enthusiasm for music shone through when he started to conduct us, though. He was excited to conduct us from the podium as opposed to from behind a piano, like he was used to doing for his chorus classes. After some helpful suggestions and one final, amazing run through of our only song at the time, the bell rang signaling the end of the day, and the last time I would interact with Mr. R. for quite a while. A few months later, auditions for the school play were being held by Mr. R. and my social studies teacher. I was so excited to find out that I had a call back, but very nervous once I found out that I was the only 6th grader who got one. Because of my nerves, I was pretty quiet during the singing portions. Mr. R. got extremely irritated by this. “This is a singing audition, so it would help if I could actually hear you sing,” he said. I was very intimidated by this reaction, but I tried to be louder so as to avoid another venomous comment. About a week or so later, the cast list was posted. Before I could look at it, though, my teacher informed me that Mr. R wanted to talk to me after class that day. Apparently I’d gotten a lead part and he wanted to coach my singing. While I met with him, Mr. R apologized for intimidating me during the audition; he just wanted to see how I would handle it. I was thrilled that he was much more laid back than he let on during the audition. After that meeting, I knew that Mr. R. was one of the coolest teachers I would ever have.

During the musical that year, Mr. R spent a lot of time coaching my singing since I didn’t have the experience from his class that almost everyone else did. He kept pushing me to do better and to try a different approach to certain sections of the song to see if that would help me. I was so grateful to have someone there to tell me what to fix and how to fix it, especially someone experienced in music like Mr. R; other extracurricular instructors that I’d had didn’t do that in quite the same way. After getting to know him better, it was easier to joke around with him and the rest of the cast. Since our musical was “Aladdin”, we were all constantly quoting the Disney movie, especially Mr. R. I remember one specific instance where we had a practice solely for actors with lead parts. One of the 8th graders was having trouble with a section of his song, but finally mastered it and sang the part beautifully. Mr. R was thrilled. “’He can be taught!’” he said, quoting the movie. “But where was that voice during class, though?” he wondered, laughing. On Opening Night of the show, the entire cast was called into the chorus room for a motivational lecture. Before dismissing us to take our places, Mr. R. gave us one final direction: “Make this the best…show ever,” he said quietly. “And if anyone asks, I said ‘darn’.” We all laughed and went on stage to make him proud. The following year, a lot of new actors auditioned, including my friend who had never been in chorus, band, or a play before. Mr. R pushed him as much, if not harder, than he pushed me the year before. Soon enough, all Mr. R’s work paid off. My friend ended up being a much more confident singer by the end of the show. That year, there was a huge cast and an abundance of confident actors. I was in a group with a lot of people who all had the same general part. Mr. R wanted us all to have an equal chance to shine, so he tweaked the original songs so that we all had that chance. Somehow, he made it work perfectly, despite our large numbers. I was amazed! I had no idea that was possible. But Mr. R proved me wrong. Once again, we got our Opening Night lecture in the chorus room. “I think this is going to be our best show ever!” Mr. R. told us. “Keep this in mind while you’re on stage: if you ACT like your character, that’s who you’ll become.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant when he said it, but I soon figured it out. Mr. R wanted us to embrace our characters. That was the only way to give a convincing performance. That thought followed me through the following musical as well. This show would end up being the most interesting for all of us from start to finish; and it was majorly because of Mr. R. The first practice on the calendar was for leads only. After school that day, many of my friends and I had to go to the chorus room for rehearsal. Our show that year was “Mulan”, so we were, again, constantly quoting the Disney movie. As Mushu, Mulan’s “right-hand dragon”, I viewed my character as portrayed in the movie by Eddie Murphy. Therefore, I tried to read my lines as he would have. After picking up on what I was trying to do, Mr. R. just shook his head and laughed before walking across the room to point it out to the other teacher involved in the production. He politely informed me of my mistake and told me to form my own view of what my character should be like. Mr. R gave the actors playing some of the Chinese soldiers many helpful suggestions during practices. He explained that each one of them had a distinct personality that should be known through not only their spoken parts, but also their singing. He also pointed out several times that, “Hey, by the way, that line is supposed to be funny. You might not get it, but the adults in the crowd will. Don’t rush through it. Give the audience time to laugh hysterically before you go on to your next line.” Often, he went on to explain the joke so we would understand the context a bit better, giving us all more of a sense of humor. Mr. R also gave me a lot of helpful suggestions to improve my singing, which still needed work. Quite a few of my songs were written too low for my range, so he taught me how to sing these parts well. There was one specific song that was supposed to have a jazzy feel to it; a jazzy feel that I just couldn’t quite get. “Now, this song is where you would bring in the Eddie Murphy aspect,” he joked, remembering what had happened at our first practice. A few other common directions that were given to us included, “Feel free to improvise and deviate from the script when you think a joke lends itself, but make sure people will understand”, “Don’t kill your voice on this part during practice; save it for the show”, and “You guys are all on vocal rest until opening night!” That year was my final Opening Night lecture. Mr. R was confident that we would do well; that all our hard work would pay off. “Remember this when you’re on stage,” he told us. “If you ACT like you know what you’re doing, you will.” Upon hearing those words, I knew he was absolutely right.

I have never in my life seen someone as passionate about chorus as Mr. R. He is somehow always involved in music, even outside his classroom. If you walk past the chorus room at Skyline before class starts, you will most likely hear the sound of a piano. That is the sound of Mr. R doing one of the things he loves most. He loves playing the piano. It’s always used as an accompaniment at the chorus concerts and during warm ups in class. Personally, I think it adds more depth to the songs, making them more enjoyable. One summer, before we started 8th grade, Mr. R even asked my friend to come to school so he could show her that he had had the piano re-keyed. Now that’s what I call enthusiasm! When you see Mr. R in the hallway, there’s a good chance that he will be humming, singing, whistling, or something of that variety. Half the time, you’ll probably be tempted to join him. Mr. R also gets involved in other aspects of music. He works with the ensemble during the play, training each vocal section until their part is mastered, and then pushing them to make it even better. He also helps with the band concerts, tuning each instrument before the group goes on, and trying to keep the waiting musicians quiet while other groups are performing. His efforts didn’t end up working as well as they should have while I was in Skyline’s band, but the fact that he tried was extremely helpful. I always felt slightly guilty when the majority of my grade didn’t do what he told them to. In addition to this, Mr. R also runs the chorale (a more advanced chorus that participates in a competition in Virginia every year) and works at a Limestone Presbyterian Church, playing the piano during mass.

Mr. R has a great sense of humor. For example, my friends and I were very interested in finding out what play we would be doing during our 8th grade year. Many people had been bugging Mr. R about it, so after we had asked about several plays, he got frustrated. “I’m tired of hearing ‘Is the play such-and-such?’ from the three of you. This year, you have to come up with questions about the story of the play, and they have to be creative. You can ask one question per day, and I’ll answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ truthfully based on how creative the question is,” he told us. We all had so much fun following his instructions. Our questions were completely obscure, taking a few minutes to decode before an answer could be found. Surprisingly, Mr. R calmly processed our questions, while laughing at how convoluted most of them were, and gave us truthful answers in addition to credit for our creativity. Honestly, I’ve got to hand it to him. It takes a lot to be able to put up with me, my friends and all of our quirks. Mr. R is also able to make a lot of things into a joke, including some of his own faults. He jokes all the time about his ADD, baldness, and short temper. I’ve heard that he’s very easily distracted during class, and often goes off on a tangent about something that happened and he remembered because of the music. His well known joke on this goes as such: “A, B, C, D, E, F—Squirrel!” One of his famous lines when trying to lighten a stressful mood is, “Now, stop frustrating me before I start tearing my hair out!” This always gets laughs. Another involves a “threat” to throw the piano across the room. Everyone knows he’s joking. It’s a baby-grand piano; there’s no way he could possibly throw it at the alto section for singing too quietly. Mr. R has, on many occasions, tried to give up coffee for Lent. It works, if by “works” you mean that he survives the 40 days coffee-free. But this always results in an irritable Mr. R for lack of caffeine, but he tries to laugh it off anyway. Sometimes it’s a successful attempt, but other times we just end up with more “threats” about torn out hair and defenestrated pianos. No matter what’s going on, Mr. R definitely knows how to laugh.

Before starting to write this essay, I had asked some of my friends what they remembered about Mr. R. Many of them described him as a short, bald, hard working man, and rattled off a few of the inside jokes that they had with him. But Mr. R is much more than that. I’m amazed at how much he’s involved in outside his classroom, helping to organize the school musical, running the chorale, and working at Limestone Presbyterian. He has a great sense of humor and can lighten any mood. I suppose that’s how he was able to put up with me and my friends for three years straight. But most importantly, he is passionate about music and teaching. You can’t claim to love something that much and not be as passionate and involved as Mr. R. I knew after my first play audition that Mr. R was a great teacher, but my best memory of him was during our final Opening Night Lecture. One thing that he told us will stick with me forever: “If you ACT like you know what you’re doing, then you will.”



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