A Cary band teacher inspires admiration—and talent
by Addie Ladner | photography by Bob Karp
“No conducting, just listen to each other,” Chris Forgione says, standing over his class of percussion students. On the wall behind him, a plaque reads: “Mr. Forgione’s Way or the Highway.” It nods to his teaching style: firm, but fun. Forgione has been the Band Director at Davis Drive Middle School for 23 years. There, students, parents and administrators agree, he’s done more than just teach kids how to play the flute or the drums. The constant clatter in his classroom doesn’t come from just instruments; it comes from laughter, chants the students recite to learn scales and the running, open discussion between Forgione and his charges. “I don’t know how he’s been doing this job for this long with the noise,” Assistant Principal Jason Ganoe says—especially because 90 percent of the kids that enter his classroom haven’t picked up an instrument before that first day. “To see these kids go from zero to possibly making it a career, their life? He has this magic in him,” Ganoe says. Ben Sparrow, now a professional saxophone player and an elementary music teacher in Florida, was one of Forgione’s students. “Some of my 8th-grade teachers didn’t get the full picture of who I was, but Mr. Forgione did. His room was a safe place,” says Sparrow. At the time, Sparrow was experiencing sudden onset Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, that brought with it panic and anxiety. He found reprieve in Forgione’s room. Sparrow says Mr. Forgione would encourage, but not pressure. “I remember one time I was trying to process what was happening in those months. I was talking about being in my head and he said, ‘Nothing outside of you has changed. It’s how you’re seeing it.’ That stuck with me.” Sparrow went on to earn a Bachelors of Music in Saxophone Performance and a Master of Arts in Teaching from East Carolina University (where Forgione also studied). He says he uses Forgione’s example when forming meaningful relationships with his own students.
Forgione’s first job out of college was at Wake Forest-Rolesville Middle School, where he grew the band program from about 65 students to over 200. “He is a funny teacher and teaches in compelling ways. Knowing he puts in hard work gives us a sense of responsibility to work hard,” one student says. Forgione says he doesn’t see his 6th-grade band students as beginners, but rather, future 8th-graders ready to compete. With the students, he emphasizes the value of practice. “I try to help them understand if you want to be good, you have to stick with it,” says Forgione. “It’s a three-part cycle: You play, you get better, you want to play more.” When students aren’t interested, he says, it’s because the cycle is broken. “Usually, they’re not practicing.” During a time Forgione refers to as a mid-life crisis and feeling burnt out, he enrolled in the Raleigh Police Force Academy. “I went from seeing kids at their best to seeing them at their worst,” he says. “This here is a utopia. We’ve got great kids, great parents, great resources.” The experience gave him a new perspective: “I learned so much on the streets of Raleigh. Things that used to stress me out, don’t.”
“But the biggest turnaround was when I became a dad,” he says. Forgione and his wife now have four children, on top of the hundreds of students he treats as his own. Forgione sees band as a metaphor for life. “It teaches individual responsibility to a group, learning how to succeed and fail together,” he says. Most of his students will proudly go onto Green Hope High School, a school nationally known for its band program. “It’s bittersweet because I only have them for three years. I get them playing at their best—then I send them on their way.”