Mike Cottingham talks about the year 1969 this way: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; Hurricane Camille hit the day he got married; and he started Brother Martin High School’s first choral music program.
On May 9, 50 years later, Cottingham returned to conduct approximately 50 members of combined Brother Martin choruses at a Brother Martin High School Alumni Chorus Concert. Some were his students, while others were conducted by former conductor and current school president Greg Rando and current conductor Kevin Caparotta, both Brother Martin graduates.
It was part of the continuing yearlong celebration of the school’s founding (after St. Aloysius and Cor Jesu merged) and the 150 years that the Brothers of the Sacred Heart have been in New Orleans. The year’s celebration will conclude in September 2019 with a Founder’s Day Mass.
“Brother Martin was such a great place,” Cottingham said. “The Brothers of the Sacred Heart were so supportive and encouraging to let us do what we thought we needed to do. They said, ‘Go and do it’. … I am glad to say they are continuing to believe in the spirit of that.”
Early music program
When the Brothers of the Sacred Heart created Brother Martin, they sought to develop a boys’ high school that educated the whole student, “whether it was in sports, whether it was in math or science,” Cottingham said. “They felt their duty was to help develop the whole student. Included in that is the arts.”
Cottingham was hired in 1969, shortly after earning his master’s degree in music education at LSU. He remained until 1983-84, followed by his former student Rando, ’77, and then alumnus Caparotta, ’88.
From the beginning, Cottingham said he challenged students to learn difficult music and introduced tenor, baritone and bass parts. This resulted in an award-winning tradition at the local and national level that continues today.
“It was an exceptionally fine music program,” he said, built to perform and to teach music theory. “Throughout the years, the Brother Martin Chorus consistently ranked superior in all competitions at the LMEA District and State Festivals, as well as local and national competitions.
“We burst on the Louisiana music scene as Brother Martin Chorus and went straight up from there,” Cottingham said. “I challenged them with more intricate and more demanding music all the time, and they accepted the challenge. … They were willing to work on it, to make it work, so we had success. … Once we started, we kept doing it.”
Cottingham recalls a few crowning moments as conductor: accompanying Pete Fountain on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” at the Superdome for Pope Paul VI (via video) in 1975; performing on Monday Night Football when the New Orleans Saints were still playing at Tulane Stadium; singing for President Gerald Ford during a New Orleans visit; earning a gold medal at the International Choral Music Festival of Mexico and participating in “Carols from the Courtyard” at Christmastime at WDSU-TV station in the French Quarter.
While the Brother Martin Alumni Chorus has performed over the years at fall and spring concerts, the anniversary performance marked Cottingham’s first time conducting it since his first assembly of an alumni choir in 1979 at the University of New Orleans with members from the first 10 years, he said. He was impressed.
“We had a great array of talents and ages, and they all enjoyed being together as part of this experience,” he said.
About 80% of the songs at the May 9 concert were familiar to alumni members. But Caparotta and alumni officer Chris Alley collaborated to record and get unfamiliar parts to members for preparation in advance of three, two-plus-hour rehearsals before the concert. The concert ended with the combined alumni and current choirs singing “O Sacred Heart.”
“These last four days have been tremendous for me,” Cottingham said. “It’s almost like a reawakening of the music program to hear men sing and do it so well. … It brought back all these great memories. What a treat for me to be asked to come back and be a part of.”
Cottingham credits the Brothers of the Sacred Heart’s philosophy in developing the whole student for making the arts program at Brother Martin possible.
“Their history in Louisiana is just phenomenal,” Cottingham said. “In the words of Brother Martin Hernandez, whom the school is named after, ‘We are not here to teach boys how to make a living. We’re here to teach them how to make a life.’ I think that’s part of it. We all felt it was part of our job.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.