Music comes naturally to Alex Montalbano, a 16-year-old junior at Riverhead High School.
He learned to play piano at home as a child and began playing the flute in the school’s band program in fifth grade. Alex mastered the flute quickly and expanded his musical repertoire by taking up the clarinet the following year.
“I was mostly self-taught with the clarinet,” he said. “I had an easier time learning and playing the clarinet. The flute needs more wind than people realize.”
By the time he became a teenager, Alex already excelled in three instruments, performing solos above his age level with the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA). Since then, he’s picked up alto saxophone and piccolo as well — and aced more NYSSMA solos — which is why his band teacher, Jason Rottkamp, wasn’t surprised when Alex was chosen to play the clarinet with the All Eastern Symphonic Band later this year.
In April, the Wading River resident will join about 120 other student musicians to perform for the Eastern Division of the National Association for Music Education’s biannual concert in Atlantic City. The participating students represent 11 Mid-Atlantic and New England states and the District of Columbia.
“Everyone [chosen to perform in the All Eastern Symphonic Band] is so good at what they do,” Alex said. “We all want to be there. I like playing in a group like that.”
Qualifying for this band is no easy feat, Mr. Rottkamp explained.
First, Alex had to earn a perfect score on his All-State level NYSSMA solo. The students choose the pieces they play, which typically range in difficulty from level 1 to level 6, based on grade level. But extraordinarily talented juniors and seniors can opt to perform an All-State level solo. A step above a level 6, Mr. Rottkamp described it as “college-level” material that students must perform with a pianist rather than completely alone.
From there, he was among about 120 students chosen to play in the All-State Symphonic Band in Rochester this past December. His clarinet performance there and subsequent application are what earned him a spot in the All Eastern Symphonic Band, making him one of just three clarinet players from New York to qualify.
Alex is also a member of Riverhead High School’s band and pit orchestra, where he switches between playing flute, clarinet and alto saxophone.
“I’m fortunate to have kids like Alex come along,” Mr. Rottkamp said. “Kids who can play all instruments … Alex has perfect pitch.”
He has qualified to play clarinet in All-County performances each year since fifth grade. For four years, he’s also belonged to the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, with which he plays three concerts annually, the last of which is held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. That’s one of Alex’s favorite performances and he said these experiences have helped shape his goals for the future. After graduation in 2018, he hopes to attend a music conservatory, such as The Juilliard School or New England Conservatory.
“I learned I want to pursue the clarinet,” he said, adding that he’s interested in performance opportunities as well as composing music for movies and video games. “Being away from home and performing, it helped me realize this is what I want to do.”