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January-February 2014: Christopher Mastromarino

Christopher Mastromarino, affectionately called “Mr. M” by the students he is leading at Matoaca Middle School in Chesterfield County, is a current undergraduate student in the Music Education program.

His musical journey began with the same tools that many others may remember fondly. The familiar story involves a second-hand piano and childhood music lessons. “When I was young,” Mastromarino reflected, “my father bought me a full-size piano.” The piano, perhaps found with the help of the local newspaper’s classified section, didn’t make lessons any easier for Mastromarino. But Elton John tunes played by ear kept his interest in piano fresh.

A native of Sterling, VA, Mastromarino’s family moved to Arundel, MD during his teenage years. Mastromarino remembers that the school’s music program was a stark cry from what he was used to in Northern Virginia. In Virginia, he was a member of several choruses and ensembles throughout the years. His new environment in Maryland, though, didn’t have as many diverse musical opportunities. As a result, students like Mastromarino took on new roles and responsibilities, even assisting with ensembles and music courses.

“If I can pinpoint when I wanted to sing, it was seeing Newsies in a class” Mastromarino stated. The early 1990s Disney movie had many children at the time hooked on the idea of a future in musical theatre.

Aspiring music educators can name the teacher that had an influence on their interest in the field. One of his former teachers, Mrs. Pamela Burns “got every engaged with people personally.” Like many excellent educators, she would go the ‘extra mile’ to assist students. At times, she would work with Mastromarino one-on-one with piano skills after class, and get gigs to play at churches.

Shortly after high school, Mastromarino packed up and moved to Nashville for “the music scene.”  At first thought, country music might be on the reader’s mind, but it was Christian music that brought him to Tennessee. While in high school, religion became an increasingly large part of Mastromarino’s life. He found himself serving on leadership councils, even going to church up to six days a week. At the time, college wasn’t on his radar as close family members hadn’t pursued that particular path.

After 11 months of working retail jobs and serving as a corrections officer in Nashville, Mastromarino got homesick. Questioning his future, Mastromarino pondered next steps and eventually opted for the Army, where his goals of becoming a military police officer were tested. Soon after enlisting, he was ‘shipped off’ to Korea. For two years, Mastromarino enjoyed the food, culture, and friendship of Koreans. There, he also got involved with performing piano for contemporary worship, even performing solo concerts. The goal of the Better Opportunities for Single and Unaccompanied Service Members (BOSS) program, which he got involved in, was to enhance the quality of life for individuals while in the Army. There, Mastromarino further developed his leadership skills and eventually served as President when the program was chosen by the army as “Best Program in Korea” for community service.

Formal service projects such as the BOSS program were only part of the way that Mastromarino gave back while in the Army. As a member of The Old Guard, tasks included guarding the tomb of the unknown soldiers. In his last year of service, he was awarded a letter of commendation for volunteering to aid Hurricane Katrina victims. For many being a ‘driver’ may not be an important accomplishment, but as a driver for the Chief of Military Police, Mastromarino drove the lead car for ceremonial motorcades. In this task, he drove heads-of-state such as President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Queen Elizabeth, ensuring their safety.

After a hiatus from education, he enrolled in Strayer University, then Northern Virginia Community College where he completed the Associate of Applied Arts program in music.

When asked why he decided on VCU after applying to universities throughout the state, he replied, “I felt welcome at VCU, that was the bottom line.”

As many of you know, it can be difficult to answer the question “Why music?” from family and friends. For Mastromarino’s family, it was hard to explain the trajectory of a music program and what happens on a day-to-day basis. Last September, his parents drove from Delaware to support his junior recital performance. While singing pieces from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Puccini’s Edgar, his talent and dedication became real to his parents. “That’s when they understood,” he said. “They had no idea how much work goes into a music degree.”

What are next steps for Mastromarino? A career in education is at the forefront of his goals, but elementary education stands out most to him. He respects the amount of patience needed to teach this impressionable age group. “I feel like I can make a lasting impression on students,” he said. (Bonus points for Mastromarino who stated laughingly, “It’s fun. I like sitting on the floor clapping.”) His enthusiasm for community service has carried over from his ‘Army days’ and he has begun to nurture an interest in arts advocacy.  The move seems natural. As a former White House intern, he respects the need to empower communities through the arts. With some of the nation’s leaders talking about cutting arts education funding, he understands what it means to stress the importance of arts education.

Though his VCU Music education is winding down, Mastromarino had nothing but positive things to say about the program. “I love the faculty, administration, and teachers,” he said. “The students here work harder than students anywhere.” But he has two pieces of advice for current and prospective students. 1. “Talk to your professors,” he said. “They care.” And 2., for someone whose academic career didn’t lead immediately from Point A: High School to Point B: College, he respects the amount of work taken to earn his degree. Mastromarino stated, “It’s a lot of work…enjoy the ride.”

-Raina Fields