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Q&A about Mark Tonelli

Where are you from?

I was born in Rome, Italy. I came to the U.S. with my parents when I was four. I grew up in northern New Jersey.

When did you start playing guitar?

I began taking guitar lessons at age 8.

Do you play other instruments?

I studied violin concurrently with the guitar from ages 8-12. I have done a few gigs over the years on bass. I can play the piano and drums a little, but I would not call myself a pianist or a drummer.

Why did you pursue a career in music?

In middle school I wanted to be a medical doctor, but I volunteered as a “candy striper” in my hometown hospital and discovered that I couldn’t stand the sight of blood or people getting needles. I also found the hospital to be a sad place with so many sick people. That experience taught me at least two things: 1) to have great respect for medical professionals and the work they do and 2) that I was not cut out for that line of work. I later took some mechanical drawing classes in high school and found that I liked the symmetry of it, and I thought I wanted to be an architect, but it didn’t work out. By my junior year, I looked at what I was good at and realized I had been playing the guitar for eight years, and it occurred to me that I could pursue music as a career.

Have you had jobs besides music?

In high school I worked as a paperboy and then as a stockman and in the appliance department at Kmart. In college, I worked as a cashier at CVS. Later on, I took some time off from graduate school and worked for about a year in the Customer Assistance Center at the corporate headquarters of Jaguar Cars North America. I learned a lot about business and communication in that job, things I still use today as a musician.

Did you always want to be a college professor?

From the beginning I wanted to be a performer, and, in fact, even as a professor, I still consider myself a performer first. I developed an interest in teaching college when I was a teaching fellow during graduate school at the University of North Texas. I directed an electric guitar ensemble and taught lessons to undergraduate jazz guitar students. In the courses I was taking as a graduate student, I had to create some projects which required me to teach and present. These experiences gave me a taste for college teaching, and I thought I could see myself doing it one day full-time after spending many years as a performer, which is what I did.

Where else have you lived?

In addition to New Jersey, I lived in the Dallas, Texas area both as a graduate student and then after I graduated. I worked for a year on two different cruise ships, one based out of Miami, Florida, and the other out of Barcelona, Spain. I lived at West Point, New York for ten years when I was in the West Point Band’s Jazz Knights. West Point is fifty miles north of New York City. After I got out of the military, I lived for a year in Kansas City, Missouri. I have lived in Illinois since 2016.

Why did you get a doctorate?

Earning my doctorate was a goal from high school. Most college teaching jobs require one, so it was necessary for the line of work I wanted to get into. Even so, my time at Teachers College-Columbia University, where I earned my doctorate, was transformative. It helped me become a better teacher and develop a more professional identity.

What do you like most and least about being a musician?

I enjoy performing with others. I like the creative aspects of music, like composing and arranging music and improvising. I do not always enjoy convincing others that music is a valuable part of society or that musicians should be compensated fairly for the years of hard work they invest in cultivating their unique skills.

Were you in the military?

Yes, though my military career was probably different from most. I enlisted in the Army specifically to perform in the West Point Band’s Jazz Knights. Their guitarist retired, and they advertised an opening. As I civilian, I sent in an audition packet and was selected for an in-person audition. After I was offered the position, I contacted the local Army recruiting station and began the process to enlist. I entered basic training at Ft. Leonard Missouri in May 2005 and graduated nine weeks later. I did not attend a band-only basic training, which does not exist. I was with trainees from across the Army. I learned to fire a rifle, throw hand grenades, rappel, zipline, orienteer, and other soldier skills. After I graduated from basic training, because of my civilian acquired music skills I bypassed Advanced Individual Training (job-specific training) and went straight to my job at West Point. The West Point Band is one of the millitary's Premiere Bands, in which a position is stabilized, and you can serve your entire military career in that one job. I served for ten years in one job at one military installation, West Point. While I was in the Army, I had to meet all the requirements for any soldier, including maintaining proper weight for height, taking a biannual physical fitness test, and participating in Army-wide training. I entered the Army as a specialist (E4) and left as a sergeant first class (E7). Many people have asked why I did not become a commissioned officer, as I had a masters degree when I entered military service and could have earned more money. Army Band Officers perform an important function primarily as administrators, but they often have little time to perform. I wanted to perform, so enlisting rather than commissioning made sense.

Where have you toured?

In the U.S. I have done tours of Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, Texas, the northeast and the New England regions. Abroad, I have toured Ukraine and Holland.