PAUL SANTERRE HAS TRANSFORMED MEMORIAL SCHOOL’S MUSIC PROGRAM INTO A VITAL PART OF THE CURRICULUM

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PELHAM — Given the passionate pursuit of excellence that instrumental music director Paul Santerre has exhibited since he began teaching at Pelham Memorial School in August 2001, it’s understandable that he now jokingly refers to the music program as “The Belichick System.”

That’s a reference, of course, to Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach and winner of three Super Bowls. But while both have used hard work to reach relative levels of success, there’s a couple of areas where “Mr. S” and “Mr. B” appear to be about 2,000 yards apart — media relations and friendships with past students.

And you can add to those differences an ability to shed tears.

“I’m getting choked up now, as I think about it, but I have 31 eighth-graders graduating (next month) and this is the last group that I started with when I first came here,” said Santerre. “Tuesday night is going to be tough emotionally for this guy; I’ll probably cry at graduation, too. You know, I see them all the time. It’s like they’re your own.”

On May 20, Santerre played host and lead conductor at the annual spring concert at a jam-packed Pelham Memorial School. It just may be a tougher a ticket to obtain than Gillette Stadium in January.

“I’m truly blessed, and that’s a fact,” said Santerre as he prepared for the concert last week. “The town’s been very supportive since I got here. And I can’t thank the parents enough.”

One parent recently donated a large music white-board for Santerre’s classroom, while another bought a $2,000 keyboard for the program. That same parent purchased a new saxophone two years earlier for the school.

The parents’ generosity and his music students’ dedication seem to be natural byproducts of the success that Santerre and his concert and jazz bands have compiled since PMS principal Cathy Pinsonneault recruited him in April 2001. At the time, Santerre, who had just earned a master’s degree in music from the University of Maine, was teaching private trumpet and trombone lessons at his home to Pinsonneault’s two children.

“Cathy said, ‘Pelham needed some help,” recalled Santerre, who has been married for 19 years to Sophia Santerre, the choral and music director at Nashua High South.

“So she got me out of the house.”

He was hired and given 16 kids to work with at Pelham Elementary School. That was when music was regarded only as an “activity,” and not a graded course of study. Today, there are 130 students in the elementary and middle-school music programs, plus two music teachers, including Tiffany Evans, who now directs the younger children. Music has become a graded course of study.

Santerre cites the Pelham Memorial School seventh- and eighth-grade concert band’s first-place performance at the annual school band contest at Six Flags in Agawam, in 2003 as “the first big step” in turning around the music program. PMS now has a sixth-grade band directed by Evans, and seventh- and eighth-grade band, three chamber groups and the PMS jazz band, all under Santerre. The jazz band has drawn especially high acclaim at its recent performances at Souhegan and Nashua high schools, and at the Nashua Country Club where they played for the Nashua Area Retired Teachers Association.

“Come to one of our concerts,” Santerre urged. “You’ll be floored, you really will.”

The Pelham Memorial School Music Department has produced two audio CDs of the annual spring and winter concerts that are available for purchase/donations.

Santerre, 48, was born in Nashua to a mom who loved to sing, and a “dad who couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow.” Inspired in part by the hit record album, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Santerre first began taking trumpet lessons at Romey Rochelle’s music studio behind what is now Darrel’s Music Hall in Nashua. He stuck with it. By his junior year at Nashua High School, Santerre was torn between a career as a science teacher or becoming a music teacher.

“I chose music because of my high-school band director, Stephen Norris at Nashua High,” Santerre said. “But I had several other inspirational music teachers when I was in high school.”

One of Santerre’s chief inspirations was the late Johnny Progress, a professional trumpet player and music teacher who ran the John Progress Music studio on Lake Street in Nashua. At 16, Santerre frequently played trumpet at the Lake Street studio alongside the 70-year-old Progress on bari-sax. Progress had played with such music greats as Count Basie and Ted Herbert.

“Johnny used to look me in the eye and say (in a raspy, gravelly voice): ‘You’re gonna be a good one, I know it!'” said Santerre, mimicking Progress from memory. “At 16, let me tell you that was pretty cool.”

The passion for music that he saw in Progress has stayed with Santerre to this day, through his days at Keene State College, and then teaching for the next 15 years in Manchester, Hudson and at Pinkerton Academy before Pelham came calling.

Santerre’s avowed mission now to pass that passion for music along, as best he can.

“If you asked me 10 years ago, did I ever think I could get these kinds of performances out of 11- and 12-year-old kids, I probably would’ve said no. But I think if a kid sees you in any class, giving all you’ve got in a positive way, then he or she is going to respond back to you.”