In the mid-1970s, after teaching music in Fort Fairfield schools for a few years, Steve Orlofsky decided he had enough and wanted out of the classroom.
It didn’t exactly work out that way.
More than 40 years later, he is retiring from George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill as one of Maine’s best-known music teachers.
Under his direction, ensembles at the academy have won awards at state and New England regional festivals. In February of 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the school’s jazz combo Melodious Thunk placed second in its division at the National Jazz Festival in Philadelphia — one of several its combos to win honors over the years.
This year, the academy’s jazz groups submitted videos of live performances to the National Jazz Festival and won first and second place awards in their divisions. Orlofsky was named one of two National Jazz Festival Educators of the Year.
“He will be missed a lot,” said Libby Rosemeier, the academy’s assistant head of school. “He’s made such a name for himself, not just statewide but nationally, too. Steve is an artist, and he is bound and determined to do the best for his kids.”
But in the spring of 1977, before Orlofsky and a steady stream of his students started winning accolades, that future was far from certain when he decided to stop teaching and leave Maine.
A native of New York state, Orlofsky threw himself into his teaching position in Fort Fairfield after graduating from the University of Maine in 1974, but found after a while that he needed to step back.
“After three years, I was so pooped out,” Orlofsky said recently, seated on a stool in front of window fans in the band practice room.
So that fall he went to pursue a master’s degree in music education at Bowling Green State University near Toledo, Ohio — a pretty good indicator that he planned to return to teaching. But first, with his parents’ blessing, he hit the road as a touring musician with his buddies from grad school to play gigs mainly in the Midwest and Canada.
“We weren’t just a disco group,” Orlofsky said. Funk was part of their repertoire, and “we played jazz and harder rock, too.”
After four years of touring, however, Orlofsky grew road weary and was ready to settle down, so he returned to Fort Fairfield, where taught for another six years. He was grateful to get his old job back, he said, and likely would have stayed there if not for the fact that, a few years later, his wife, Carol Orlofsky, got a job teaching at Mount Desert Island High School.
“I’ve always been a loyal person. It was hard for me to leave Fort Fairfield,” he said. “But my wife said ‘you can be married to your job or you can be married to me.’”
So they moved to Hancock County and, 34 years ago, Orlofsky became the music teacher at George Stevens. That first year, there were only 12 students signed up to play in the jazz band, so one of his first tasks became recruitment. As an incentive, he built a storage locker in the band room so students wouldn’t have to lug their instruments around school.
Orlofsky’s efforts quickly paid off. By the end of his first year, the jazz band had 40 students. By the mid-1990s, there were more than 100 — at a school with about 350 students — though that number has since declined to around 60.
“We tried different things in the 1990s,” Orlofsky said. “Kids kept wanting to be in a combo.”
Orlofsky said touring in the 1970s showed him the importance of performing frequently, which is why he regularly performs with other musicians, whether it’s with a small jazz trio at a local cafe, with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, or backing national acts such as the Four Tops or The Temptations at Maine shows. A saxophone player, he plans to continue performing after retirement.
“It’s important to be able to play and to show the students I know what I’m doing,” Orlofsky said. “It’s not an easy task to learn music and play and perform it well. It’s downright difficult.”
Orlofsky’s passion for music, jazz especially, is one reason his students have gone on to become professional musicians or fill production roles in the music industry.
His collaborative approach is a reason students keep signing up.
He is happy to have multiple student jazz combos in any given year, even if it means he has to recruit former students to help shoulder his band director duties, and he lets students bring in music to try out. If the students are enthusiastic and pick it up, he’s all for it.
“It’s not a dictatorship,” Orlofsky said. “My musical thought isn’t gold. It’s not etched in stone.”
Letting students bring their own interests and abilities to the ensembles shows in their enthusiasm and effort when they perform, he said. Sometimes, when they show him what they want to play, he’ll find out that one of his drummers can also play keyboards, or that a saxophone player can sing, too.
“That’s one of the things I admire most about you,” Zeke Sacaridiz, a current student who was named a Superior Musician by this year’s National Jazz Festival, told Orlofsky. “It keeps people ridiculously inspired. You get to play your favorite songs.”
A former student, Tate Yoder, said in a video tribute that Orlofsky “is hard to forget.” Yoder, who is hoping to crowdsource material for a planned documentary about his former music teacher, said Orlofsky’s real legacy is the mindset students take with them when they graduate, not the trophies they bring back from festivals.
“He’s helped students fall in love with music,” Yoder said.
Phelan Gallagher, a 2002 graduate and former student of Orlofsky’s, will become the school’s new music director in the fall. Gallagher, who has a master’s degree in music education from Hunter College in New York, has been helping the program for the past year or so, helping to prepare ensembles for performances.
Gallagher said he grew up listening to Orlofsky play music because his father, John Gallagher, played with Orlofsky in a jazz quintet that often rehearsed in his family living room. Gallagher called Orlofsky “one of the kindest, most welcoming people you’ll meet” and he that kindness extends to everyone, not just music students.
“It made that band room, that space, feel like home for many of us,” he said. “His tireless commitment to fostering that is really impressive. I’ve carried that with me as an educator.”
Gallagher — who, like Orlofsky, plays the saxophone — said he is excited and humbled to become the school’s next music director.
“I think I have a pretty good sense of how he made it work, and how to keep it going,” Gallagher said.
Orlofsky said he has been thinking about retiring for a few years now, but the unusual challenges of this past year helped him realize now is the time to do it.
READ MORE EDUCATION COVERAGE
The pandemic limited how many band members could meet at once and, for a time, which instruments they could play. Wind instruments were set aside temporarily in favor of others such as vibraphones and keyboards. Even now, with many teenagers vaccinated and spacing requirements no longer in place, they wear face masks as much as possible and have fabric covers on the ends of their trumpets, saxophones, flutes and the like.
“I feel fortunate we’ve been able to pull it together and make it happen,” Orlofsky said. “We made do.”
There are other challenges, too.
“I’ll be 69 years old later this month,” he said. “I don’t want to be a mediocre band director. It has made me think about things a little differently.”
Orlofsky said he plans to stay in the area. He won’t miss faculty meetings, but said he will miss being in the classroom.
“I’ll miss the creativity,” he said. “It’s really heartening when the students get it. It’s always been very inspiring to see.”