Mr. Frezzo’s Last Opus

Mr.+Frezzo+with+his+wife+and+students+touring+Eastern+Europe+in+2015.

Mr. Frezzo with his wife and students touring Eastern Europe in 2015.

Fonda Shen

“The cemetery is full of indispensable people,” Mr. Frezzo told me the first time I remarked how much his students will miss him after he leaves. He was putting music back into the huge filing cabinets that store the countless scores and parts that constitute the RM Music Library — a resource that he is constantly telling his students to take advantage of. Our exchange was typical. Mr. Frezzo never likes to harp on his own legacy, instead preferring to focus on whatever needs to be done at that particular moment. So we will have to harp on it for him.

Although he made it clear from September that this year would be his last year teaching, there was little fanfare about it. It was just another year on his teaching timeline, one that stretches back 49 years to 1968 in Prince George’s County. “My first year teaching, I worked with some of the roughest kids I ever knew,” Mr. Frezzo reminisced a few weeks ago. “My first week teaching, a kid threatened to punch me in the mouth.”

He spoke with an air of disbelief about his years teaching there, recounting events that would be unthinkable here at RM. But then he shifted tone — “I taught some wonderful kids there too. One of whom will sing at my alumni concert. She’s now about 60 years old.”

It is no wonder that a student who is now at retirement age herself still remembers her former choral director. Mr. Frezzo teaches hundreds of students each year in his 5 choruses and IB/AP Music classes. In addition, he sponsors RM’s branch of Tri-M, the National Music Honor Society, and directs the singers in the musical each year. He probably knows more students in RM than any other faculty member.

Yet, far from treating his students as simply one of many, he is notorious for always having his office door open. Especially during lunch, there is often a line of students leading out from his office waiting to speak to him about their music, their schoolwork, the musical, scheduling conflicts, concert schedules, college recommendations, and sometimes, just life.  

One of his favorite topics to talk about with his students is opera. “I have this big, crazy dream of becoming an opera singer and he supported that dream before I even knew I had it,” said Hayley Abramowitz (RM ‘14), “and I remember towards the end of junior year and all of senior year when I would go to the opera, I would come back to Mr. Frezzo and tell him how incredible it was and he had this ‘See? I told you’ look on his face.”

Sometimes, his conversations are not quite as serious. Two of his former students, Paul Moudouki (RM ‘15) and Sarah Savonis (RM ‘16), were dating at the time when he saw the two of them together in his classroom. “He took one look at me, and said to Sarah, ‘You could do better, ’” Moudouki recently deadpanned.

While Mr. Frezzo’s conversations with many of his students were casual, inspirational, or downright silly, he often found himself filling a role in students’ lives that far surpassed that of a teacher. “My senior year I was going through a lot and he acted kind of like a father to me throughout that year,” Moudouki reflects, trying to express how significant a figure Mr. Frezzo was in his life. “He was the reason I graduated from high school. I was his aid and often instead of making me aid for him he would have me complete assignments in his office.”

Moudouki is not alone in his gratitude. Riva Redding (RM ‘16) left her parents’ home immediately after turning 18, before she graduated from high school. “When he [Mr. Frezzo] found out, he worked with me to try to connect with other people outside of school who could help me. He asked people he knew, he asked some churches… He devoted so much time into making sure I was okay. I didn’t know how he did it,” Redding recollects.

Mr. Frezzo himself likes to tell the story of a particular student that he helped, just as he helped Moudouki and Redding, many years ago. “A kid that I am particularly proud of – let’s just call him Danny,” Mr. Frezzo began, “Danny just graduated from here in ‘97. He came from a really messed up family situation. Danny had to go to the army because dad wouldn’t pay for college. From the GI bill be went to Towson and he was supporting himself entirely as he was going through Towson so it took him about 7 years to get through Towson. And he invited my wife and myself to his graduation party and said that it was me who got him through it.”

As Mr. Frezzo was telling this story, it was clear how much Danny meant to him, as his face lit up when he remembered that Danny would be driving up from Georgia to see his alumni concert in June. “He was kind of like the son I never had,” Mr. Frezzo, who has three daughters, reflects. “When they’re up at Christmas they’re always invited to our Christmas party. He calls me old man and I call him young twit. It’s good fun.”

Mr. Frezzo himself comes from a tight-knit Catholic family from just outside of New York, but he insisted that things were not always easy. “I did not come from a rich background. My father was a mail-carrier and my mother was a clerk. My brother and I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment.”

But more than once, he had told me about how grateful he was to his parents who may not have been able to give him much materially, but insisted upon paying for all of his university tuition. “You’d better thank your parents,” is one of his most frequently given pieces of advice.

Over the course of his many decades teaching, it is indisputable that Mr. Frezzo has advised and comforted countless students. I have personally, on several accounts, walked into his office panicking about grades, SAT’s or some other subject that kept me awake at night, and walked out several minutes later a calmer person. It is no coincidence that it was in his classroom that my friends and I tearfully watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech the day after the election. But there is perhaps no one who has been more deeply impacted by Mr. Frezzo than his colleague on the other side of the wall, Dr. Perry.

“When I first started teaching, I had an idea of what I wanted to do with the program, but he [Mr. Frezzo] really served as a mentor for me all these years,” Dr. Perry said. The two have worked together for 22 years. “I couldn’t be the teacher I am without his experience.”

Mr. Frezzo and Dr. Perry circa 1998

For Mr. Frezzo’s students, his influence often extends past their graduation day. Hayley Abramowitz is now studying opera at the University of Maryland and even now, in times of doubt, she still turns to him for advice. “For a while at UMD I had music education as a second major, and I wasn’t enjoying myself but I kept it anyway. And Mr. Frezzo came to see me in The Telephone back in January and asked about my plan for the next few years. When I told him it involved teaching he said ‘No, don’t you dare. The world needs your voice.’ And I had heard it from a lot of other people, but Mr. Frezzo was the first one I believed. I dropped the major two months later, and it’s been such a relief,” Abramowitz remembers.

Moudouki, a year younger than Abramowitz, is also currently pursuing a degree in musical theatre in college because of Mr. Frezzo’s continuous drive to inspire a love for music in students early — from before even freshman year.

On my first tour of RM, Mr. Frezzo was the only teacher I remember who came up to me and, with the insistence of a salesman on commission, tried to convince everyone in my group to take his classes. Even now, in his last year teaching, he is still constantly trying whenever he can to convince students that not only should they sing, but they can sing and can sing well. After introducing himself, the next thing that Mr. Frezzo says to a new student is usually, “Are you going to sing?” And if the student answers in the negative, his next question is always,“Why not?”

“It takes a certain dedication to go out into the hallways and try to convince students to join chorus,” says senior Camilo Gonzalez-Sol, who spoofed Mr. Frezzo in the Group 6 video at the IB celebration. In the skit, Mr. Frezzo was portrayed as constantly trying to turn every conversation back to the topic of joining chorus. “(The highlight: “You’re using your voice to talk? You know what else that voice can do? It can sing! Join chorus!”)

The funniest aspect of the video was that it was not far from the mark. Countless unsuspecting students just stopping by in his classroom have been pulled into his office for an impromptu audition, and he is often successful in his campaign. “I had no vocal training or musical inclination prior to taking his class,” said Moudouki, “and he cultivated a latent passion for the performing arts over the 3 years that he had me.”

“He really loves his content. He is very passionate about his subject. He has a great wonder and curiosity about music,” says Principal Damon Monteleone, trying to put in words the qualities that make Mr. Frezzo unique as a teacher. “And students really respond to a teacher who loves to teach,” he concludes.

Gonzalez-Sol, one of the only two composition residents of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) chosen from across the country, is known affectionately in the music department as a total music nerd. But even he is effusive when talking about the vast knowledge that Mr. Frezzo has accumulated over the years and is always generous in sharing. In classes ranging from IB Music to Treble Chorale, he is always doling out historical facts about the music, pointing out different elements of music theory and sharing anything else that he thinks would interest his students or make them better musicians. It is no coincidence that he once considered being a history major.

“Every time we go to festival,” Hughes concurs, “he always makes it very clear that the music is more important than the score and reminds us of how lucky we are.” Of course, the RM chorus usually does not have to worry about getting a good score.

Abramowitz and senior Sally Simpson both recalled tours in Europe as their most memorable moments with Mr. Frezzo. “We sang ‘Va, pensiero,’ which Mr. Frezzo had taught us was basically the second national anthem of Italy,” recounts Abramowitz, “and he had promised that if we started singing it people would sing along. So it started with just us, walking out of the church, and we crossed in front of a cafe, still singing, and about to split into like six-part harmony… And everyone, every single person in that cafe, started singing along with us.”

Words like “magical” and “incredible” are thrown around by his students when they speak of concerts, rehearsals, and tours with Mr. Frezzo. These sentiments are not just contained within his classes, either. They are felt far beyond the school’s walls.

Under his leadership, RM’s chorus program has been for many years one of the best in the county and an active part of the Rockville and Montgomery County community. “The RM Chorus is probably our single greatest ambassador to the community,” said Monteleone, “At all the cluster concerts, the elementary and middle school students can look up and realize that they will work with him one day. Everyone knows Ron Frezzo and the RM Chorus. In the RM cluster, he’s like the choral godfather.”

Mr. Frezzo’s dedication to teaching music is rooted in a firm belief in the power of the arts to enhance the lives of his students. “He is always advocating for music and the arts,” said Hughes, an unsurprising assertion given that Mr. Frezzo is the MMEA Advocacy Chair. As one of the speakers at the IB Senior Celebration, Mr. Frezzo declared that he did not just teach music, but how to live. And that is what all of the late rehearsals and concerts are for, to teach students about not just black dots on a page, but life itself.

In addition to his obvious passion for music, he also has a wonderful and often rather acerbic sense of humor. Mr. Monteleone hesitated before telling his own favorite story about Frezzo, unable to contain his laughter as he recounted an instance where Mr. Frezzo joined him backstage at the awards ceremony this year and called him a rather rude name — with affection, of course. “Mr. Frezzo waited a second after he said it and just looked horrified. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever called a principal an [expletive] before!’” Mr. Monteleone chuckled.

And everyone seems to have their favorite moment when Mr. Frezzo made them laugh. “Believe it or not, Mr. Frezzo agreed to twin with me,” says Hughes, remembering the time when the two both wore purple and white plaid over khakis. It was typical of Mr. Frezzo to agree, as very rarely is he afraid to make fun of himself.

Abmramowitz recalls a different instance in her freshman year, where she and her fellow sopranos were trying too hard to hit a high A. “He shouted, ‘Sopranos! No! Don’t put the power out!’” said Abramowitz, “And immediately afterwards, all the lights cut out.” To this day, Abramowitz remembers the shocked look etched on Mr. Frezzo’s face as some higher being seemed to hear his plea.

“One of the things I’m going to miss most is how we always rib each other,” Dr. Perry adds, “He and I know that we can walk into each other’s classrooms and just insult each other in good fun.”

Despite his often rather sardonic sense of humor, his compassion cannot be overstated. “He has the heart,” Moudouki said without hesitation. “For the typical bark and bluster, he is remarkably gentle,” Hughes agrees, citing an incident where he messed up during a concert and expected to face Mr. Frezzo’s wrath, only to be reminded that it was all in the name of music and a little glitch was okay.

Trying to continue their rivalry to the very end, Dr. Perry spent a few seconds trying to convince me that he would be happy to see Mr. Frezzo retire, but the task was quickly proved to be too difficult as he spoke about Mr. Frezzo with awe. “He’s so genuine and sincere — you always know where you stand with him. He kills himself to make the school, program, and students successful,” Dr. Perry enthused.

“Working for and with Mr. Frezzo, it’s evident that he loves and respects the RM community, whether it’s when he makes us sing at the homecoming game even though no one can ever hear us or how we always go sing happy birthday for anyone in the front office so there will certainly be a vacuum when it comes to that,” Hughes concurs.

All of the effort that Mr. Frezzo puts into making the choral program and RM as a community a better place is remarkable, and rarely does he complain beyond occasionally lamenting the amount of paperwork he has to fill out. But his colleagues and students have noticed, and hope that he finally finds some time to relax after he retires. “I hope he gets some sleep after he retires,” said Abramowitz, a sentiment echoed by many of Mr. Frezzo’s students.

“I don’t know if it is appropriate for a student to say this, but I hope he spends some time with his wife,” concurs Gonzalez-Sol.

“Good wine, pasta and travels — absolutely,” Mr. Monteleone added.

“He needs to stop coming in on Saturdays to answer emails,” adds Dr. Perry. Even now, on Saturdays, Mr. Frezzo’s car is still often parked in the school parking lot as he takes care of his last weeks at RM.

Mr. Frezzo, however, is retiring so late for a reason. “I love working with young people,” he effused, “Old people are stodgy. Young people are full of promise and the future. The bureaucracy has changed. Things on top have changed, but people — students, don’t change.” It is this affection for always working with the new generation that has kept him in the same profession for so many years. As he has molded the lives of countless students, he claims that his students have changed him too. “I went to Catholic school and grew up surrounded by a lot of Italian culture. They [his students] have definitely made me more liberal,” he said without inhibition, “They have introduced me to so many different cultures.”

But alas, as much as he loves his job, Mr. Frezzo is unwavering in his decision to retire. Luckily for the students of RM, however, Mr. Frezzo, Dr. Perry, and Mr. Monteleone all have nothing but the fullest confidence in his replacement, Ms. Carrie Eyler from Westland Middle School. At his final choral concert last week, Mr. Frezzo introduced Ms. Eyler to her future students and asked for the RM community to give her the same support that they have given to him all these years, and when we do, she will be more than well-equipped.

The clear affection that his students have for him was evident as Madrigals surprised him with a song at the end of the concert. Part of the lyrics read: “May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft upon your fields.” And afterwards, the entire ensemble surrounded Mr. Frezzo in a hug that elicited applause from the packed auditorium, a phenomenon that perhaps echoed the collective wish to keep him a little while longer.

Mr. Frezzo and the combined choruses were joined by alumni at the conclusion of Mr. Frezzo’s final chorus concert.

Next year, Mr. Frezzo’s office will have a new inhabitant. She is more than qualified, energetic, and willing to continue building RM’s choral program. But to Mr. Frezzo’s current and past students, those that he had counseled, comforted, and taught, he is still far from dispensable.

“He really is an institution,” Dr. Perry reflected. He is right. Mr. Frezzo has always been an institution within the larger operation that is Richard Montgomery High School. In June, he will send off another year of graduates, but this year, he knows that he will leave with them. And just as he has wished countless students all the best as they embark upon the next stage of their lives, we, his students, hope wholeheartedly that his next adventure is filled with happiness, music, and really great Italian food.