By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Teaching life lessons through music

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterDana Libonati has been playing piano since he was 8. His mother taught piano, but “she had the wisdom” to send him to a different teacher. He started composing at a child, as well.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Dana Libonati has been playing piano since he was 8. His mother taught piano, but “she had the wisdom” to send him to a different teacher. He started composing at a child, as well.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterLibonati has a bulletin board full of photos and notes from past students thanking him for making a difference in their lives.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Libonati has a bulletin board full of photos and notes from past students thanking him for making a difference in their lives.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterA Beatles fan, Libonati keeps memorabilia in his office to encourage students who like rock and pop to choose groups and musicians that are creative and skilled.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
A Beatles fan, Libonati keeps memorabilia in his office to encourage students who like rock and pop to choose groups and musicians that are creative and skilled.

He lives that advice himself, as he looks forward every day to teaching music to teenagers.

“You have to have a passion for what you’re doing,” he said, “and I do. I just love music. I get to come to work and play music. And I love getting to be part of kids’ lives.”

Libonati keeps every thank you card and letter sent by former students, or their parents, and they are numerous.

Photos they’ve given him over the years are plastered on a bulletin board in his office. Most have notes on the back, thanking the teacher for his work and telling him he’s changed their lives for the better.

“This is my legacy,” he said, pointing to the smiling faces.

Libonati, who started playing piano and composing when he was 8, has been teaching vocal music at Mac High for 20 years. He directs the Twilighters and Sterling Jazz groups and leads an advanced placement music class.

He taught jazz choir at Linfield College until a couple years ago, and earlier taught piano and jazz band at the school. He now teaches part-time at Chemeketa Community College’s Yamhill Valley Campus, where he leads a popular “History of Rock n Roll” class.

He directs Vintage Voices, McMinnville’s adult jazz choir, which meets in the evenings.

He also stages jazz piano performances, both on his own and in conjunction with colleagues, at community venues. He has played at the McMinnville Food & Wine Classic, for instance.

And he will be offering his piano talents in a silent auction at the Jazz Night Swingin’ on a Star fundraiser set for Saturday, Jan. 25. The evening of student performances, dinner and auctions is a fundraiser for school music programs. See related story.

He keeps himself busy, he said, because he’s easily bored otherwise. So he’s always looking for different projects.

One of the best things he’s done recently, he said, is work with his daughter, Alyssa, on “I’m Not in That Business Anymore.” The musical is based on one of the family’s favorite films, “Oscar,” about a mobster who’s trying to leave the business.

Alyssa, a voice teacher in Tigard, wrote the lyrics for the show. Her dad composed the songs.

They worked together to set the story on the stage, and were thrilled when their musical was presented as a reading at Gallery Theater and a full production at Mac High.

“I had so much fun writing that show with Alyssa,” Libonati said. “How many fathers get to do that with their daughters?”

He said he feels blessed to have both his daughter and his son, Anthony, nearby. Each had lived many states away for several years, and recently returned to Oregon.

Libonati and his wife, Kim, make it a point of having dinner regularly with their children and grandchildren — Alyssa’s 14-month daughter and Anthony’s 4-month daughter.

Libonati’s kids grew up with music, just as he did.

His parents were New Yorkers who graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. His dad taught elementary music, then became a school administrator. His mom taught private piano lessons as well as college-level classes.

No wonder, he said, that both he and his brother became music teachers. Glen Libonati teaches at Raleigh Hills Elementary, while Dana is in his 20th year at Mac High.

“Music was normal to me,” he recalled. “I thought everyone went to concerts and the theater and listened to classical music at home.”

Libonati said he didn’t really hear rock ’n’ roll and pop music until junior high. By then, all the other kids were listening to Top 40 hits, so Dana, a boy who played clarinet in band and was interested in theater, stuck out like a sore thumb.

“I was the one who was teased and picked on in high school,” he recalled.

His teachers saw his talents, though. In band, he was called on to play whatever instrument a piece of music needed — bass clarinet, alto clarinet, oboe, even tuba.

When the David Douglas High marching band needed an extra tuba player for the Gateway Fun-O-Rama parade, he was elected. His band teacher handed him the big brass instrument and told him to learn to play it — now. On the bus to the parade, a friend showed him the fingering and taught him how to use the mouthpiece. Although he didn’t play tuba well yet, he marched with the band.

He continued to play tuba, whenever needed, throughout high school.

As an upperclassman, he joined the school choir as well. “They needed boys,” he said.

Even today, high school choirs often go begging for male singers. Mac High’s program is 75 percent female, so Libonati is always on the lookout for male prospects.

“I think kids think it’s not masculine to sing, which is too bad,” he said.

Libonati started working with Mac High students in 1994. He was hired to replace longtime and much-beloved choir director Doug Anderson, for whom Mac High’s auditorium is named.

The young teacher didn’t quite realize what he was getting into.

That summer before he started, Libonati was in Seattle, visiting friends belonging to the New York Voices jazz group. They introduced him to the man heading up the music program in the New York City school system.

He was surprised when the New Yorker began rhapsodizing about Anderson’s work in McMinnville. It made him wonder just how big of shoes he had to fill.

“Doug Anderson was a legend,” he said. “I thought, ‘What am I getting into?’”

Libonati’s first day on the job didn’t ease his concerns any. “Two girls came into the choir room, stuck their heads into my office, and said, ‘You will never be Mr. Anderson,’” he recalled.

He was so shocked, he didn’t manage to figure out who they were. To this day, he doesn’t know if they ever sang for him.

While his first day was difficult, along with his first year, he soon built his own following at Mac High. Today’s students wouldn’t trade him for anyone.

Libonati said he uses his music classes to teach teens about more than just notes and rhythms.

“We spend a lot of time talking about integrity, character, soulfulness, respect, teamwork,” he said. “My goal is to teach those things through music.”

He remembers learning life lessons from his high school classes. His band teacher and lit teacher were role models, he said.

He recently reconnected with his lit teacher, Karen Kullbom, “a fascinating woman who dedicated her life to teaching kids.” Kullbom was the one who challenged him to apply himself to his studies, he said.

“I skated through high school, but in my junior year she gave me a B-minus on an essay and told me, ‘You’re better than this,’” he recalled. “She caught me.”

With her encouragement, “literature came alive” for him. He wanted to do his best to prove to her that he could be both a good student and a good person.

In his own teaching, Libonati said, he wants to be like Mrs. Kullbom. “I want to inspire kids to be the best people they can be,” he said.

In the 20 years since he came to Mac High, he said, students have changed, due, in part, to the advent of social media.

“They’re inundated with technology now,” he said. “That’s not always a good thing.”

Sometimes, he said, students don’t think about the consequences or about how their actions affect others. He tries to remind them of that — if they answer a cell phone call during choir class, for instance, what does that say to their fellow singers? he asks them, reminding them that they have a responsibility to do their part of their team.

“They’re great kids, but they’re teenagers,” he said. “And good behavior is not always reinforced in our society.”

Along with teamwork and other values, Libonati also hopes to teach his students to appreciate music — good music.

“We talk about quality and what that means,” he said.

That doesn’t mean they have to listen to symphonies, he said; rock is fine, as long as it’s good quality. To encourage them to seek that out, he brings in professional musicians such as the New York Voices, hangs pictures of the Beatles on his walls and points them toward creative composers, singers and performers who push the limits, such as Sting, John Mayer and Dave Matthews.

And he talks to them about the way our society places value on celebrities, honoring money over quality.

“Britney Spears, in one concert, earns more money than any one of the New York Voices earns in a year,” he said. “But does that mean her music is quality? No. Is music art, or is it a commodity? I want to push the kids to be discerning listeners, to listen to the best.”

Whiile he loves all music, as long as it’s good, his favorite genre is jazz. “The element of jazz that’s really interesting is that it’s different every time,” he said.

He loves to improvise, letting one idea lead to another as he strikes the keys. It’s spontaneous and creative.

“There are no rules,” he said. “You can do whatever you want.”

His most recent recording, “Musings,” is a collection of improvisations performed on his new 9-foot grand piano. His students encouraged him to record the album after hearing him play the instrument. They noticed that the piano, dedicated to Libonati’s father, was an inspiration.

“I play more now that I have that piano,” Libonati acknowledged. “Any emotional peak makes me play — stress, boredom ... I deal with those by sitting down to create and play.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or



Great story about Dana. So inspiring, great values and just an all around nice guy.

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