Molded by BHS Music Programs, Martone Leads the Next Generation
When Mike Martone, Jr., was a student at Branford High School (BHS, Class of 2001), “I was one of those few people who thought, ‘I would love to teach music in a high school, but not just in a high school—my high school.’”
Fast forward to Aug. 29, 2017—Mike’s first day as the new music and choir teacher at BHS, succeeding the teacher who inspired him; Cathyann Roding. Roding retired in June 2017 after 32 years of legendary BHS music and choir education leadership.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, Cathyann said I would be a music teacher someday, and I would be a good one, which just shows you how good and in tune with her students she was, and still is,” says Mike.
Mike first met Roding when he was a member of her BHS freshman choir. When she suggested he try out for the BHS musical as a sophomore, Mike, who at the time had more interest in playing bass with the BHS instrumental program, took a leap of faith, and found his calling.
Mike earned his B.S. and master’s degree from Western Connecticut State University. Before arriving at BHS, he spent eight years as a music educator, building a track record of success that most recently led to his being named Teacher of the Year for Monroe Public Schools in 2017.
When Roding announced her retirement in April 2017, Mike knew he was ready to come back to Branford.
“You can’t just jump out of college and teach high school,” says Mike. “It’s hard. There are a lot of different dynamics and things you to need to know how to do, and a big range of abilities...needed. So it took me a good seven years to really get my feet under me, and by my last year in Monroe, I’d built the program from 30 kids in the 8th grade choir to 110. I loved it there, but still, I left to come here. I really wanted to be here.”
Even so, he had some second thoughts, at first. That’s because Mike was well aware the person to pick up where Roding left off would have the huge responsibility of building on her well-respected and much-loved high school music, choral, and musical theater programs.
“It would be foolish for me to say I was ready and I thought it would be easy, because that would be a lie,” says Mike. “I had a lot of conversations with Cathyann about ‘Can I do this? Do you think I can do this well?’ I’ve also only had successes at other places, so to come in and not succeed would not be good!”
As someone who experienced the BHS program as student, Mike has an innate knowledge and respect for the culture Roding created among students, parents, and audiences through the years.
“The alumni component made it helpful because I knew what the expectations are,” says Mike. “I don’t think that a person from outside of Branford could have come in and been successful in their first year, because there’s a lot of commitment and a lot of town and community outreach that has to happen. I knew that, and I’m willing to do it, and I want to do it. I know how big the productions are here, and I’m a big production person myself, so I just thought it was a good fit.”
Speaking of big productions, Mike is about to put on the first BHS spring musical in three decades that will not be led by Roding and her long-time co-director, Toni Cartisano, when BHS Theatre Arts presents Shrek the Musical in the school’s newly named Cathyann Roding Auditorium from March 21 to 25.
As the show’s music director, Mike shares directing duties with another BHS music program alumnus, Colin Sheehan. Mike and Sheehan also shared the BHS stage as students during the 2001 spring musical Guys and Dolls as well as other productions.
In fact, in recent years, both had continued working with Roding and Cartisano to support BHS musicals, Sheehan by assisting behind the scenes, and Mike by playing bass in several pit orchestras. Mike says he hopes their work on this production will pay tribute to what they’ve learned from their mentors.
“My only hope is that it makes Cathyann and Toni proud,” says Mike. “That they sit there, and know that these are their students directing the show, and it’s up to their standard of excellence.”
Last spring, Mike played in the pit for Roding and Cartisano’s last BHS production together, Titanic.
“Titanic was a very beautiful show and very symphonic—it was a great, appropriate show for Cathyann and Toni’s last show,” says Mike.
When it came time to select this year’s show, he says, “I thought, there’s already going to be comparisons, so I don’t want it to be a similar style show, and I don’t want to do a repeat. Let’s change it around; let’s do something family-friendly.”
With his multi-talented theater background as a vocalist, musician, and set designer (Mike entered college with a scholarship in set design and production), Mike says Shrek the Musical offered many of the elements he and Sheehan hoped to bring to audiences for their BHS musical co-directorial debut.
“We love this show,” says Mike, “It’s so funny; the music is so gospel and so rock n’ roll—people are going to be happily surprised. And all of the kids are incredible. They are working so hard. They just are impressive, vocally and talent-wise.”
Mike also thanks the show’s parent volunteers, including many who have been working on shows and sets since he was a high school student. His own father, Mike Martone, Sr., a teacher and contractor, is working with Mike to help build a few special set pieces for Shrek. Sadly, Mike’s mom passed away in June 2017, but he takes comfort in knowing she was thrilled that he had the opportunity to teach at BHS.
“We lost my mom very unexpectedly in June. She was one of the last people who told me, ‘I think you should go back to Branford; I think that’s where you belong,’” says Mike. “So I know that I had that seal of approval for her. She loved this program, loved who it turned me into, and couldn’t wait for me to come back. And now, having my dad help...Everything in the world is right for me.”
Mike says he wants to give students the same gifts he received from working with Roding and Cartisano.
“Cathyann’s music program is the program that molded me, and the musical molded me—Toni Cartisano molded me into a young man of quality and respect and [being] mannerable,” says Mike. “These two women, along with my parents, created who I am as a person, and then I just had to go get the skills that were appropriate to be a good educator and good music person, because it’s difficult to do this job.”
The Martone Approach
As for his own teaching style, Mike says, “I try to meet them where they are. I have a lot of fun and I give students a lot of autonomy, and I have a lot of student leaders. A lot of it’s similar to what I experienced here as a student. And I think one of my best abilities is to connect with kids—I just feel comfortable having a conversation about everything and anything, in a professional way, and help guide them toward being a well-rounded adult, similar to the kind of upbringing I had here.”
Growing up in Branford, Mike and Sheehan both enjoyed a youth theatre summer camp that was offered when they were youngsters. Now, together with Sheehan, Mike is also ready to introduce a brand-new theater programming opportunity to the Branford community and beyond: the Shoreline Theatre Company. Coming this summer, the multi-age offering already has the support of Branford Public Schools and Branford Recreation Department. Youngsters will explore aspects of theater such as lighting design, costume design, acting, and theater games, while high schoolers and adults of all ages will put on a musical.
“We have such a thriving theater arts program in Branford, and we then send our students away during the summer and off-season to find that outlet somewhere else,” says Mike. “When I was younger in this town, we had a program like this, so it’s not like we’re re-creating the wheel, we’re sort of re-inflating the wheel. And it’s going to be a little different, because it’s got the camp component for young students, and the musical for high school students and adults.”
While the program quickly gathered the support of the school district (the company will meet at BHS) and the town’s recreation program (participants will register through Branford Parks & Recreation), Mike is now in the midst of spreading the word and seeking funding to help get the program up to speed for its first season this coming summer.
“We have to get the word out about this totally amazing program, and we also have to be able to buy the rights for the shows and pay other upfront fees,” says Mike.
To that end, with a video created by another BHS music/spring musical alumnae, Sam Bibbins (BHS 2012) of Subculture Films, Sheehan and Mike have set up an Indiegogo crowdfunding page with a goal of raising $5,000 which can be visited here
“It will happen for sure; how successful it will be will be dependent on how soon people find out about it, and support it and sign up,” says Mike. “There’s a lot of ideas and thoughts about what shows we can do, and there are going to be different people involved and helping—we just need to get it going, and people supporting our crowdfunding effort is going to be a big part of that.”
With many more ideas in mind and plenty of talent to share, Mike says he’s committed to making a difference in his hometown and his high school for years to come—maybe even 30 years or so, if he’s lucky enough.
“I’ve said to my family: If I move to [teach in] Branford, that’s where I want to be forever,” he says. “You get to move to a high school job very infrequently, because they’re few and far between, and you get to move to your high school almost never. So I’m staying in Branford—that’s my intention.”
BHS Theatre Arts presents six performances of Shrek the Musical in the Cathyann Roding Auditorium, Branford High School, 185 East Main Street on Wednesday to Friday, March 21 to 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 24 at 1 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 25, 2 p.m. Tickets ($18 for adults, $15 for students through high school and seniors) can be reserved at 302-315-7972 or by visiting www.thechoirlobby.com.