Parents don’t let your babies grow up without pushing them to at least try to play a musical instrument. There really are a whole bunch of reasons why every kid should do so and none of them have anything to do with becoming a professional musician. Studies have shown that folks who play get smarter, build confidence, and become more disciplined and creative at the same time. Plus most kids who play instruments have so much fun doing so. I played the trumpet when I was a kid and you don’t ever forget the great feeling you get when you’ve learned how to play your first popular song (mine was Moon River) or performed in your first school concert with all your classmates or marched onto the football field up at Lynch and watched the crowd cheer you as loudly as they do a home team touchdown.
The other thing that happens as you’re learning how to play is that you develop a whole new level of respect and appreciation for music and for great musicians. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the late great Michael Pallotta play his trumpet. I was in grade school playing in the elementary school band and our director had us up at the Lynch auditorium to practice for a concert. The amazing AHS Stage Band had just finished practicing and Pallotta was packing up his trumpet when we walked on stage. Our director asked him if he’d play something. I didn’t know the name of the song he played or even if it was a song but I do remember the incredibly beautiful sounds he made with that horn and because I was trying to play the same instrument I had so much more appreciation for the talent and the practice and the physical skills what he was doing represented.
The instrumental program in Amsterdam schools has churned out plenty of success stories and fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far to come up with a couple of case histories. My own brother Matt is one of Amsterdam’s all-time great pianists. He will tell you it was his third grade music teacher who pushed him to take those ivory keys seriously and he’s made his living doing so ever since. My youngest daughter Marissa received a welcome bunch of scholarship money to play her Oboe for Syracuse University’s symphony orchestra. The memory of listening to her play that incredibly difficult instrument alone on stage during her senior year at ‘Cuse still brings tears to my eyes.
My other three kids also played an instrument as students in the Amsterdam school district. My girls were much more serious about doing so than my two boys were. But take it from me, a guy who took trumpet lessons from fifth grade to tenth and then completely lost interest, the experience and the memories and the friendships and lessons learned during all those years sitting in front of a black metal music stand were an important part of my life and something I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do.
Which is why I and thousands upon thousands of Amsterdam’s student musicians past and present owe today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant a huge debt of gratitude.
Gerald Barnell was the “Godfather” of the Greater Amsterdam School District’s instrumental program. He was born on Amsterdam’s South Side on July 27, 1909, one of nine children raised by Albino and Carmella Barnell (shortened from Baranello). His dad ran a grocery store on Florida Avenue. His father’s family was filled with musicians and young Gerald’s uncles put together a musical group called Barnell’s Concert Orchestra, which became this area’s most popular musical entertainment for a generation.Barnell played violin in his uncle’s ensembles.
He attended public schools growing up and graduated from Amsterdam High in the Class of 1929. He then went to Ithaca College and earned a bachelor’s degree. He got his first teaching job at Cazenovia Seminary. A year later in 1934, he was hired by his hometown school district as a music teacher.
Over the course of the next four decades, as an instructor and later, district director of instrumental music, he started and/or directed every instrumental performance group that ever played a note on an Amsterdam public school stage. These included all junior and senior high school bands and orchestras. It was Barnell who first turned the Amsterdam High School Marching Band into one of this community’s most prized possessions. It was also his idea to form a Majorettes squad and to have the young ladies in that group perform their now famous Rockettes’ kick line to the tune of “Lullaby of Birdland.” He also became a key force in the Montgomery County Music Teachers Association and helped organize the very first Montgomery County Music Festival, which brought the best student musicians from every high school in the county together for virtuoso performances.
Barnell remained a very busy music man even when he wasn’t working at his day job. He completed additional graduate studies at the State University of New York at Albany, Syracuse University, Indiana University, Columbia University and the Julliard School of Music. He formed his own Union Orchestra and continued his family’s long tradition of providing musical entertainment at events and venues throughout the area. When WCSS came on the air in 1947, Barnell hosted a radio talent show called “Youth on Parade.” He also was co-host of that AM station’s first Italian music show. In addition, he gave private lessons to hundreds. Even after he retired, he continued to teach music education courses to future music teachers at Albany’s St. Rose College.
He married Antionette Morini in 1940. She was part of the Morini Coal & Oil family from Amsterdam’s South Side and she was a talented singer, dancer and actress. The couple frequently performed together locally. They had one son, Gerald Jr.
Gerald Barnell died on September 27, 1998 at the age of 89. Few made more important or longer lasting contributions to Amsterdam’s quality of life.
(The man most consider to be the founder of Amsterdam, NY also celebrated a July 27 birthday.)