Riverhead School District

Longtime Riverhead music teacher retires after 31 years teaching at her alma mater

After three decades spent in Riverhead classrooms and stages, Lisa Talmage took her final bow.

The longtime music teacher is retiring this year and, fittingly, her last conducting gig came at Friday night’s high school graduation ceremony.

“I’m graduating for the last time,” she joked during a recent interview.

Ms. Talmage, who graduated from Riverhead in 1984, grew up as the “rogue flutist” in an artistic family of violinists. She learned to play the flute on a hand-me-down instrument passed down from an aunt that was held together with two rubber bands.

She went on to study flute performance at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. “I was fully ready to go that route,” Ms. Talmage said, until realizing that for every open seat, there would be at least 200 other hopefuls in line to audition.

After college, she returned to Riverhead, married her husband, Douglas, and began working on a master’s degree in education at the former CW Post.

Ms. Talmage recalled that, as a teenager, she was always babysitting, working as a camp counselor at the Jamesport community center and teaching flute lessons to younger kids out of her mother’s living room, so the spark for teaching and working with kids was always there.

In February 1991, she got a call from an old music teacher, Charles Cardona, who asked if she’d like to teach chorus and general music at the middle school. “He said, ‘Please, we’ve had two music teachers already this year. We need somebody so the program has some stability,’ ” she said.

Ms. Talmage ended up spending the first nine years of her career at the middle school before moving on to teach younger students at both Pulaski Street and Roanoke Avenue elementary schools. 

“That first year was rough, but I won them over,” she said. “They’ll still seek me out and say, ‘Oh my goodness, thank you. Thank you for being there, for listening.’ And now I have their children in my last year.”

After more than two decades teaching elementary and middle school students, Ms. Talmage spent the last two years of her career at the high school. She accepted the position in December 2019, when high school band teacher Jason Rottkamp was promoted to a districtwide position as fine arts director.

She was excited to reunite with former students, this time older and able to delve into more challenging pieces. But that was just seven weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools.

“It was a tough time. All the kids had a hard time with it,” Ms. Talmage said, adding that it also posed a challenge for teachers — especially in a subject like music. She created a series of weekly videos entitled Talmage Tuesdays to check in with students at home in addition to making assignments like practicing scales and researching iconic composers like John Williams.

Even as students returned to school in person, the challenges continued. First, they were tasked with sitting 12 feet apart, which was later reduced to six feet, then three feet before returning to normal. The distancing requirements proved to be tricky for blending sound in an ensemble.

Ms. Talmage leads the band at a concert. (Credit: Courtesy of Tracy Oak)

This year, she said, felt like a return to normalcy as students resumed evening concert performances, marching in parades and helping amp up the crowd at school sporting events. “That presence is needed at football games,” Ms. Talmage said. “It’s school spirit.” 

She worked in partnership with cheerleading coach Stephanie Piraino to coordinate routines to go with their set list and tried to make it lighthearted and fun, with cowbells, funky sunglasses, “troll” hair and face paint a regular occurrence at those gigs.

“The kids would be having so much fun that sometimes, they don’t realize they’re learning. I guess that’s the trick of it,” said fine arts director Jason Rottkamp. “She’s always been great at keeping it fun while making sure the fundamentals are in place and maintaining the integrity of the program.”

Ms. Talmage even helped spearhead an impromptu pep band concert by marching through the hallways on the last day of classes, playing the Blue Waves’ fight song and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” 

“By the time we got done there was such positive energy in the building,” she said. “Band kids were excited, [the other] kids were excited, the football team heard us play the fight song. It was a wonderful way to end the year. And I’m hoping they do it every year.”

Ms. Talmage has conducted hundreds of concerts and, by her estimation, taught somewhere in the realm of 6,000 students throughout her career in Riverhead. The majority of those were beginners. “It takes a sense of humor,” she said. “To go from sounding like a day in bad traffic … to then recognizing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ ”

She expects to continue teaching private lessons in retirement, but otherwise has no firm plans — and that’s just fine with her. Also on the list? Exploring meditation, riding her motorcycle, more time to paint and who knows, maybe even taking up the ukulele.

Though sharing music was always important, she said, being a teacher was about more than what the band sounded like.

As a music teacher, it’s not expected that many students will go on to careers in music, though Ms. Talmage can recall quite a few who have gone on to perform and teach music and also work in production and music engineering.

“I wanted to teach [my students] to be good human beings using music as a medium,” Ms. Talmage said. “Music can connect anybody and I loved being a teacher.”