Choral Musical Director Joseph Piazza came to Piedmont on a bet.
“Looking back, I think, ‘Crazy!’” said Piazza with an energetic smile, throwing his arms into the air and shaking them, as though he were doing jazz hands.
His plan of action was simple: go to a travel agent, request fares for Chicago or San Francisco, buy the cheaper ticket. At first, the agent quoted a fare to O’Hare cheaper than to SFO, so Piazza accepted the Chicago flight. But in a dramatic twist of fate, the lady offered an even cheaper round-trip flight to the Bay Area, determining his future, Piazza said.
“I will never forget that. I walked out onto the main street and I went, ‘I’m going to San Francisco!’” Piazza said with his hands up in the air, palms to the sky. “I literally rolled the dice.”
This lucky turn of events eventually brought Piazza here, on the Alan Harvey Theater stage conducting nearly a hundred and fifty students.
Piazza teaches A Cappella, AP music theory, and taught acting for about ten years prior to current acting teacher Kim Taylor. Over his 30 years of instructing at PHS, he’s watched high schoolers grow, seeing the music change people.
“Watching someone suddenly discover they can sing, to me that’s amazing,” Piazza said. “I’ve seen someone who was quiet and shy suddenly become exuberant and be able to express themselves.”
Piazza majored in voice performance and education at Northwestern University. Like Shakespeare, Piazza seamlessly switched from acting to becoming musical director of travelling summer musicals. He worked as a director with the summer stock musicals, the American Conservatory of Theater, and conducted at North Carolina.
“The thing that I learned is that there are many avenues to pursuing a career in music, and it doesn’t have to be as a performer,” Piazza said. “Performing is one piece of it; teaching is another piece of it, arranging, composition, music production… You don’t have to be Jay Z. It doesn’t have to be a spotlight role.”
Piazza is not only a skilled conductor, but also a dedicated teacher, junior Lucy Merickel said.
“You can tell he really loves what he does,” Merickel said. “He gets us to appreciate music by not just getting us to sing it, but getting us to understand it on a deeper level.”
PHS Music Assistant Jan D’Annunzio knows Piazza better than anyone, as they go back almost 20 years, D’Annunzio said.
“We’re like an old married couple,” D’Annunzio said. “We have disagreements that probably echo through the music building, but we always make up afterwards.”
Piazza’s skill at teaching AP Music is the most special thing about him, D’Annunzio said.
“I don’t know in my 20 years if there has ever been a person who has not passed the AP test,” D’Annunzio said.
His expertise of AP Music stems from his originally classical training. Piazza said that as a child, he played piano with a teacher who demanded professionalism from him.
“As a kid I was surrounded by [classical music], because I was constantly listening to Chopin and Schubert and Beethoven,” Piazza said. “I desired to be able to play like those masters.”
Piazza uses his classical training in the classroom, doing traditional songs in Latin along with the pop songs that make A Cappella so popular.
“He exposes me to a lot of music that I otherwise wouldn’t come into contact with,” Merickel said.
Piazza has worked with a multitude of choirs: Piedmont Choirs, San Francisco Boys Chorus, and Golden Gate Men’s Chorus (GGMC), where he has been musical director for eight years.
“The biggest difference between GGMC and PHS is that at high school, you have to be an educator, whereas the men all know how to read music already,” Piazza said.
Piazza has achieved a career from teaching music, and though he’s spent time in the more glamorous performer’s role, he doesn’t have any regrets, Piazza said. Rather than being the soloist in the spotlight, he is the conductor behind the music stand, helping the kids achieve their own spotlight moments.