Over the past decade, Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond has gone from being a school without a band to a school with one of the most visible and entertaining bands in Northwest Indiana.
Rocco Carioto is entering his eighth year as the director of the Bishop Noll band, but he’s a lifer when it comes to involvement in high school bands in the area. For years, he was the assistant band director at Marist High School on the South Side of Chicago under the legendary Frank Manna, whom Carioto refers to as the “Vince Lombardi of band directors.”
Manna led Marist for four decades and had the marching Redskins/RedHawks as the most entertaining show band in the Midwest with appearances at iconic venues and bowl games, including the Tournament of Roses Parade in 2002, during his time there.
Now, Carioto has Bishop Noll on the same path.
“In some ways, we consider ourselves the Marist Band of Northwest Indiana,” said Carioto, who admits he didn’t see that coming when he accepted the band director job at the catholic school in Hammond eight years ago,
“I didn’t know how good of a career move this would be,” Carioto said after the BNI spring band concert in 2017. “I actually thought it would just be another temporary position until another (band director job) opened up in Illinois.”
After all, before BNI Carioto’s entire career was spent in the Land of Lincoln, having served as both an assistant and head band director at Marist and making a three-year stop as band director at Providence Catholic High School in far south suburban New Lenox.
But the moment Carioto accepted the job at Bishop Noll is one etched in his memory.
“When I was hired, (former Bishop Noll Principal) Colleen McCoy Cejka told me there was good news and there was bad news,” Carioto remembers. “The good news was that I got the job and the bad news was that there was no band.”
“I was scratching my head, thinking ‘then why did you hire me’.”
It would be Carioto’s task to build the band.
What he had was a band room. And one with quite a few trophies from competitions won during the 1970s and 1980s, when Bishop Noll had a strong band that reached 120 members at one point.
“I did some research and found that Bishop Noll was often in a ‘State of the Art’ band competition for years but stopped doing it in the 90s when the band fell apart,” Carioto said.
The first step in the rebuilding process was simply to “find the kids already at the school that played instruments” and find instruments themselves.
There were already four drummers who played during pep rallys, so he had that.
“And there were kids in the school who played, but since there was no band they never thought there would be that opportunity.”
The first year, the band had about a dozen students and about the same number of instruments.
“I remember finding our first two trumpets at a garage sale,” Carioto said. “I went to a few garage sales and would pick up a trombone here and a flute there. There were some instruments stored at the school, but they hadn’t been touched in 10-15 years and weren’t in playing condition.”
But ever since, the band has seen a steady rise.
Carioto began teaching at two Catholic “feeder” schools for Bishop Noll and the freshman class numbers would rise every year.
“After 2 or 3 years, some of our accomplishments were put in the newspapers, we were winning awards at parades and before you knew it we were getting kids from regimented (junior high) band programs.”
“That’s when it really took off…. We had a quality level of musicianship, and the students who weren’t as skilled were pulled up by their bootstraps by the others to play at higher levels.”
“That was a page out of the Marist book that Frank (Manna) had invented.”
It was one of a number of pages out of the Marist playbook that have been recycled at Bishop Noll.
The first thing those familiar with the Marist band will notice about Bishop Noll is their similar use of the “high step,” drum cadences and the iconic busby hat.
But it’s other, less noticeable things, that Carioto touts.
“Like at Marist, Bishop Noll does not have a concert band separate from a marching band,” Carioto said. “It’s one band that does the marching in the fall and the concert in the late fall, winter and beyond.”
Like Manna, Carioto also started a jazz band and participates in many of the same parades Marist has for years such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Chicago, the Chicago Columbus Day Parade and South Side Irish Parade.
“Our first parade was the Christmas Parade in Hammond, which the Mayor asked us to participate in,” Carioto said. “Now we are getting requests all the time.”
In addition to Manna, Carioto considers Doug Beach, his former band instructor at Elmhurst College, as a mentor.
“Both Frank and Doug had the same mentality,” he said. “Not to take yourself too seriously. It’s all about having fun and demanding one’s best.”
Just last year, the Bishop Noll band made its debut at a college bowl game, playing an “Elvis” themed halftime show at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Carioto said he and the band were “blown away” by the third place trophy they took home at their first bowl appearance and were the only band out of the 13 invited there to take home a trophy in all categories.
Also, then Bishop Noll senior Danny Cuevas won the Most Valuable Player award as voted by all 600 or so musicians involved from other schools.
“Here’s a kid who started playing the saxophone in eighth grade and really took it to heart and became phenomenal,” Carioto said.
He’ll be going to Wabash University on a full-ride scholarship with hopes to one day become a music teacher himself.
Carioto says the ultimate goal is to have the band go to a bowl game every other year and go on a concert tour in the other years. But following in Manna’s footsteps when it comes to the Rose Bowl is not quite up for discussion yet.
“I remember (in 2002 at Marist) the Rose Bowl setting us back quite a bit financially,” Carioto said. “If someone wants to give us a big donation for us to do it, that’s great. But it’s not something we are thinking about.”
For Carioto, it’s a much greater accomplishment to have a positive impact on the lives of many young musicians who come from less than wealthy backgrounds. Many of the students at Bishop Noll, like Cuevas, grew up in neighborhoods of Hammond and East Chicago where not a lot of kids end up having the opportunity to go to college.
“Part of my job is to give them that opportunity,” Carioto said. “I believe it is my calling to help these kids out. To help them use that instrument they have as a ways to an end.”