John LaMattina wasn't your typical teacher. You could say that he walked to the beat of his own drum.
He inspired generations of kids to do the same.
Recently, LaMattina gave his final concert as the director of the free drum program at Norton Elementary School outside Snellville. He taught the free extracurricular program from 1988 until this year — two years after his retirement, although LaMattina continues to work part time as a parent-coordinator.
"When you watch the kids playing drums in Mr. LaMattina's drum show, you can see the focus in their eyes," said Lance Kindl, who participated in the class in the 1990s and returned to participate in the final drum show in early May. "For years, Mr. L has made the lessons and drum show at Norton Elementary a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved."
Growing up on Long Island, LaMattina began taking drum lessons when he was 15. And when he became a teacher, he wanted to share his passion with his students.
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After 15 years of teaching in Freeport, New York, he moved to Georgia and asked if he could start an afterschool class at Norton. It later became a before-school activity, and dozens of children would get up early to participate.
"I wanted to give the students the opportunity to try something different," he said. "Music is a source of higher-level thinking. It enriches both the artist and the audience to which he or she is performing.
"I always used music in my classroom," the former fifth-grade teacher said. "We would interpret the words of songs and see the poetry of the words. I used many of the Beatles songs in my classroom. My favorites to use were 'In My Life,' 'Penny Lane,' and 'The Long and Winding Road.' I also taught jazz history to all fifth-graders, as it was part of the fifth-grade curriculum.
I always tell my students, 'If there's no music in the room, it ain't right,' " he said.
LaMattina's drum program began with fourth- and fifth-grade students, and he later added third grade.
Over the decades, LaMattina estimates more than 1,500 students have participated in the program, which began with one drum set and a set of drum pads. When he was named an AJC Honor Teacher in 2000, he used part of the grant money to buy more instruments and expand the program.
LaMattina also maintains a drum studio in Lawrenceville, where he teaches about 40 students a week. Many of them have continued with music through high school and college, and several have become professional musicians, including his son Michael.
"The impact on my life trajectory was greatly shaped by my dad's love of drumming," said Michael LaMattina, who is the principal percussionist with the Dayton Philharmonic and director of percussion studies at Miami University in Ohio.
"Some of my fondest childhood memories were of going on gigs with my dad," he said. "We would load in and out; one of the first things he showed me was how to telescope the drum cases to save space after the drums were set up.
"I would get a chance to sit in on a tune or two as I got better," he said, adding that his father began helping the Brookwood High School drumline while Michael LaMattina was a student there.
"Mr. LaMattina's influence in 1992 set me on a musician's path to meet my beautiful wife, and my closest circle of incredibly talented and dependable friends," he said. "Using Mr. LaMattina as my model, I've been a percussion performer, instructor, director, consultant, technician, and clinician on and off since my undergraduate days. ...
"Like Mr. LaMattina, I'm hoping to share my knowledge and passion for percussion with students so they can someday live the amazing and crazy experiences I've been through," he added, referring to his upcoming teaching job. "I think about all of Mr. L's students who didn't become musicians, probably hundreds of former students that I don't know but (who) learned from him, like me, how to love music, drums, maybe even the Yankees a little, or to understand the struggle of the learning process and embrace it, enjoy it."
John LaMattina plans to work part time as Norton's parent-coordinator while continuing to teach his students at the studio and performing in as many gigs as he can book.
His final concert was a celebration of the past decades, and many of his former students came to show their appreciation.
"I had a great time, told some bad jokes, and soaked in all the memories," LaMattina said, adding that he will treasure a keepsake that his students presented to him of an artistic drawing of a drum set. "I will remember it forever. It was a great ending to the show, but I hope there will be many more years of drumming for my students and for me. I still have lots to do with my drums.
"I was so happy to give kids a chance to receive the joy of music," he said. "It has been my legacy and my gift to Norton ES."