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The Student News Site of the Latin School of Chicago

The Forum

The Student News Site of the Latin School of Chicago

The Forum

Give a Drum Roll for Cynthia Gradek!

Courtesy of Ms. Gradek
Cynthia Gradek, Latin’s Performing Arts Chair and Director of Instrumental Music, recently joined St. Rita’s Hall of Fame.

Players on St. Rita High School’s football team watched from the bleachers as the marching band, led by Latin’s own band director Cynthia Gradek, proceeded across all 120 yards of the field. The band performed at every sports game, took part in numerous competitions, and attended summer camps where they marched for eight hours a day. Some of these high school students went on to join the military, only to find boot camp easier than marching band.

Recently inaugurated into St. Rita’s Hall of Fame for her accomplishments during her 23-year tenure as band director, Ms. Gradek has been at Latin for eight years, serving as Latin’s Upper and Middle School Performing Arts Chair and Director of Instrumental Music.
Ms. Gradek was presented the award at St. Rita’s 87th Annual Alumni Banquet. Those in attendance, many of whom had flown across the country for the event, roared with applause as her photo appeared on the slideshow.

“You don’t realize how much you impact people’s lives,” Ms. Gradek said. “I had lost touch with so many of them. And just to see how well they’re doing now was so neat.”

Ms. Gradek’s involvement in bands goes further back than St. Rita. During her childhood in Northwest Indiana, Ms. Gradek started the activity in her sister’s footsteps and quickly discovered her talent for music. But it was about more than music—it was about community.

Ms. Gradek at St. Rita’s Alumni Banquet with former President and Principal of St. Rita Tom McCarthy and best friend Jodi McLawhorn. (Courtesy of Ms. Gradek)

“It just gave me a sense of home and a sense of family,” Ms. Gradek said. The head of this family was her band director, Mike Madonia. Mr. Madonia would give Ms. Gradek private lessons. Eventually, Ms. Gradek was helping instruct his students.

“My band director influenced me a lot,” she said. “I took the best of what he had to offer, and I made it my own.”

Even when other instructors didn’t meet Mr. Madonia’s high bar, Ms. Gradek knew to take nothing for granted. “He told me, you can always learn what not to do. I always kept that in the back of my mind.”

He soon named Ms. Gradek the trumpet section leader in the high school band, which served as an early leadership opportunity for her and perhaps foreshadowed her future teaching career.

“Teaching just came very naturally to me, and I felt I was pretty good at it. Whereas performing, it gets me a little anxious, I’ll be honest,” Ms. Gradek said.

Every trimester in college, Ms. Gradek took eight to 10 classes. She graduated with extensive abilities in 20 instruments and a music education degree, and it wasn’t long before an opportunity to use these talents arose. Mr. Madonia gave her a call about an open position at St. Rita, and the rest is history.
“The success came pretty fast,” Ms. Gradek said. “I think the students were ready for it. They liked hearing a new voice, they liked taking pride in what they did, and they worked hard. They wanted to do well, and they wanted to be noticed for good.”

The marching band at St. Rita broke off into several sections. Jazz band, performance band, pep band, cast band—Ms. Gradek taught them all. With her leadership, they won more awards than the school ever had before.

“Most of [the students] came in with not much experience at all, so everything they did was because of heart,” Ms. Gradek said. “They didn’t have a lot. It was not a wealthy area or anything, so they didn’t have access to a lot of resources. They just came and worked.”

Around two decades and many trophies later, another opportunity arose.

“I got a call from another band director and he said, ‘Hey, have you ever heard of the Latin School?’ And I was like, ‘Nope.’”

When senior Uma Vadali was at Latin’s Middle School, Ms. Gradek became her new band teacher.

“She is a strong woman, and I respect and admire that,” Uma said.
The band program at Latin is different from St. Rita’s. Latin does not participate in competitions; the program operates as a curricular class, and the band rehearses for a concert each semester, resulting in two showcases a year with a few extra performances sprinkled throughout such as the Big Games and pep rallies.
“As I got older, I could deal with not having marching band anymore in my life. But you know, it was great while it lasted,” Ms. Gradek said.

She no longer instructs only high school boys. Squeamish fourth graders and senioritis-suffering seniors alike utilize the band room.

“She has a lot more tolerance than I do, and that’s because of her experience,” Uma said. “I totally admire her and ability to just keep calm and keep the class going. I just think she’s a really great teacher.”

Sophomore Avery Hellweg took a hiatus from band after sixth grade, joining again her freshman year. Ms. Gradek helped her make up for the gap.

“She really made sure to take her time to get me back to a solid point in my music skills,” Avery said. “I’ll come in to practice during my frees, and she’s always super friendly and nice to talk to.”

Ms Gradek’s teachings go beyond the classroom, according to senior Richard Heller.

“I’ve learned lessons in band that will 100% help me in the professional music world,” he said. “Actually, they even help me now at gigs.”

Ms. Gradek keeps a love for music and the community alive, as is apparent from her student’s experiences, whether marching in Northwest Indiana or leading performances in Northern Illinois.
“For some people, it gives you an escape,” Ms. Gradek said. “It’s a good way to wind down. It is teamwork. It’s like a sport in that sense that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. If somebody’s playing all the wrong notes, the group’s not going to sound good.”

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Caroline McHugh
Caroline McHugh, Opinions Editor
Caroline McHugh (’25) is back for another year of writing for The Forum! During her junior year, Caroline will be serving as an Opinions Editor. Since her freshman year, Caroline has written articles discussing social media and various events throughout the school.

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    Mr. JoyceJun 4, 2024 at 1:59 pm

    Great piece, Caroline. Ms. Gradek rocks!