Joe Tornello conducts a rehearsal with the Buford Middle School Band on Monday. Tornello has directed the band since 1978, earning 46 consecutive "superior" ratings, the highest possible. On the verge of retirement, Tuesday's concert will be his last. Credit: Credit: Ryan M. Kelly / The Daily Progress

A fixture in Charlottesville City Schools’ music program is about to perform his swan song.

Joe Tornello, who has directed Buford Middle School’s band since 1978, will conduct his 36th and final spring concert at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Buford.

“I try to teach,” Tornello said. “I try to get the students to a certain level of accomplishment, and that’s what we strive for.”

During his tenure at Buford, the band director has developed a program that consistently receives accolades. For 31 consecutive years, Tornello’s bands have received “superior” ratings — the highest possible score — at the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association District Music Assessments.

What’s more, because the Buford band leader often sends more than one band to the district competition, his bands have amassed 46 “superior” ratings.

At the competition, bands are assessed on their ability to perform a concert march, two of three prepared concert pieces and they have the option of participating in an additional sight reading assessment.

Tornello said he didn’t do it all himself. He credits many people who have supported him along the way, including Charlottesville City Schools for its commitment to the arts, as well as the many parents and former students who have chipped in along the way.

Specifically, Tornello said that it “didn’t hurt” that his older brother, Vince, was a band director at Charlottesville High School and that he was able to be Vince’s assistant and learn from him.

Dubbed “Mr. T” by his students, Tornello is known for teaching music fundamentals.

“I stress to them that this is music, and that it takes time for development and rehearsal,” Tornello said. “It’s all business; it’s work every day.”

While many young people might shy away from such rigorous instruction, Tornello said his Buford students “feed on it.”

Lena Keesecker, an eighth grade student, said that Tornello taught her the importance of discipline, which she has transferred to other areas of her life.

“In sports, games can be very stressful and you just have to focus,” Keesecker said. “And it’s the same in music, you just have to focus and you’ll get the job done.”
Sydney Lewin, another eighth-grader, agreed.

“He has these very strict ideals of how you should be working, and that you should be working hard and trying your best and doing well,” Sydney said. “I think he’s imparting a lot of wisdom … that is helping to improve our band and us as people.”

Additionally, Sydney said that she’s learned responsibility.

“We have a responsibility to do well and to do our best,” she said. “We should try to improve for improvement’s sake so we can be as good as we possibly can be.”

Laura Mulligan Thomas, orchestra director at Charlottesville High School, praised Tornello’s passion and skill.

“[It] has inspired thousands of young Charlottesville musicians over the past 3½ decades,” Thomas said. “Joe is a deeply respected pedagogue, not only in our community, but throughout the commonwealth of Virginia.”

Additionally, Thomas said, his students can play.

“He is an excellent technician,” she said. “His students develop competence by focusing on fundamentals daily. … His bands have consistently earned top ratings in district and regional competition for decades. These accolades speak for themselves.”

Tornello — who also has umpired local baseball and played in the Charlottesville Municipal Band — doesn’t have any immediate plans for his retirement but said he has a lot of great memories to recall.

Moving forward, Sydney said the building won’t be the same without Mr. T.

“We’re going to miss him,” she said. “The fact that he’s not going to be here is very sad.”