Feature stories

On the beat with the maestro

Cool Staten Island music teacher helps kids ‘totally get it’

Band leader Bill Levay and his students make music at IS 24 on Staten Island. Bruce Cotler

Band leader Bill Levay and his students make music at IS 24 on Staten Island.

Band leader Bill Levay and his students make music at IS 24 on Staten Island. Bruce Cotler
Band leader Bill Levay and his students make music at IS 24 on Staten Island. Bruce Cotler

He is very likely the coolest grown-up they know: silver-shot brown hair down to his shoulders, silver soul patch, tattoos of a blue swallow and treble clef on long thin hands that seem made for a conductor’s baton. Then there’s his expression — the intense, almost crazed look of a person who is completely immersed in his art. In Bill Levay’s case, it is the art of teaching music to young people.

“I love him,” says Justin, a trumpet player in the band at IS 24 on Staten Island.

“When we don’t get it, he can tell us just one thing and we totally get it,” adds drummer Samantha.

During 8th-grade band practice for the holiday concert, Levay stops to deliver bad news about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Santa’s famous hooved hero was in fact born from the pen of an advertising copywriter in the 1930s for promotional coloring books during Christmas-shopping season. Does anyone know for which company?

Anna does. She had taken Levay’s suggested research foray to heart.

“Montgomery Ward,” she says.

“You win first prize!” shouts Levay. There isn’t really a prize, which doesn’t faze kids who know there isn’t really a Santa Claus either and that the real prize is praise from their teacher.

“Great, that was nice and soft, trumpets; clarinets, louder!” he calls out just before the holiday medley segues into “Feliz Navidad” and long before it heads toward “Hanukkah O Hanukkah.”

Soon he lets the clarinet players know they aced the playful “Reindeer Rag.” Now Levay turns toward the percussion section. “OK, boom-chick people, right on five!” he says, referring to the number of a measure they’re playing. Levay enlightens kids on how flip-flopping from one song to the next gets the audience to listen intensely because just as they catch one melody, it changes to another.

“Quodlibet, now that’s a word for you,” he says, riffing on a Latin term that means combining lighthearted melodies in a humorous manner.

Band leader Bill Levay and his students make music at IS 24 on Staten Island.Bruce Cotler

When band members move into “Good King Wenceslas,” they’re bemused by the next Levayisms, mini-lessons delivered loudly over the music. First is how “Wenceslas” means “Vaclav” in Czech, followed by the pronouncement that “the world’s top-selling Christmas song, ‘White Christmas,’ was written by a nice Jewish boy in New York, Irving Berlin.”

The sheer energy Levay brings to the conductor’s podium has not dimmed in the 35 years he’s been teaching. Classically trained in trumpet, he has a working knowledge of every instrument “like any music teacher worth his salt,” he says, and also teaches after-school guitar lessons. A son of Staten Island, he joined the band when he was a student at PS 1 and continued to study music at JHS 7 and Tottenville HS.

Before class, he confessed that after getting his bachelor’s and master’s in music, he got another master’s in administration.

“I almost went over to the dark side,” he says. But working directly with students, such as the 30-plus kids now filling the music room, was not something he could give up.

Both of his 8th-grade bands and some 7th-graders comprise the 86-piece senior band that performed in the Dec. 17 concert.

Every few years, some students show exceptional musical talent.

“But they will all have a sense of accomplishment of working together,” says Levay. He fosters that sense of cooperation both in and out of the classroom. On Saturday mornings he conducts the Staten Island division of the citywide Salute the Music middle-school band that performs every few years at Carnegie Hall. He also runs an after-school marching band that performs at the local Memorial Day Parade.

When Levay first began teaching, an assistant principal kept good-naturedly hounding him about what he taught. Levay knew that the obvious answer, “music,” would not be the right one. Weeks passed.

“Finally he told me that if I just teach music in today’s economy, I might as well teach buggy-whip manufacturing,” Levay said. “That it was obsolete. That changed my whole philosophy. What I really teach is work ethics, the skills needed to work well with people. Some kids may keep playing music, but nearly all are going to have a job one day.”

Even getting kids to enter the room, set up their instruments and be seated, which is standard procedure for band rehearsal, takes a lot of training, he says. As if on cue, one boy bemoans a lost mouthpiece and another a missing sax strap. Levay remedies the situation. Other kids are chattering.

“Once I step up to my stand, they should all stop. Let’s see,” Levay says.

All at once the students are quiet, ready and in tune: the maestro has taken his place.

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