Ralph Urban is a broad-shouldered man with an unassuming manner. The students at the Montauk School have an obvious respect for him. But if one should act up during band practice or even at a recital, Mr. Urban will shoot a stern look that’s enough to make anybody sit and behave.
Since the news spread that the popular music teacher was retiring after 37 years, Mr. Urban has been getting lots of hugs and gifts, including ties, which he’s known to be fond of.
The decision to leave was a hard one to make and one he’s been second-guessing ever since. “I rethink it every day,” he said from his crammed music room, as pumped-up students roamed the halls, shouting, on one of the last days of school this week.
What Mr. Urban won’t miss is his commute, which takes him round trip to Westhampton five days a week. He even bought a fuel-efficient car to make the trip, though he drives his sleek black Mustang convertible on nice days. His license plate says UrbanFLT.
Back in the day, before the South Fork exploded with people, the commute used to take 55 minutes. On a good day now, it’s about an hour and 10 minutes. When there was construction not long ago on the Southampton bypass road, it took over two hours each way. And still he never considered accepting a position closer to home. “Never,” he said, firmly.
In 1970, Mr. Urban graduated from the State University at Fredonia with a Bachelor of Science degree in music education, and worked briefly for BOCES as an itinerant teacher of instrumental music for the Montauk and Amagansett Schools before being drafted in 1971. The Army put him to good use teaching music theory and marching band at the Armed Forces School of Music in Norfolk, Va. He received an honorable discharge in 1974, and later that year was hired full time by the Montauk School, where he has been ever since.
When Mr. Urban first began teaching he was in charge of the band and the chorus. Teaching students how to play musical instruments was much harder than teaching them to carry a tune, he said. In the beginning, faced with about 140 eager students, he was often overwhelmed, he said. But in some he recognized natural talent. “A few went on to become music teachers. Sometimes they blossomed early.”
He instituted ensembles that included younger students, mostly to perform in holiday pageants that have fostered many a family memory. Little did he know that the Montauk School enrollment would one day swell to over 400 students. Happily for Mr. Urban, about 10 years ago the school hired another music teacher, who took over the chorus, leaving Mr. Urban time to focus on his students’ participation in other music festivals on Long Island and elsewhere.
Years ago, Mr. Urban remembered, before the school purchased its own equipment, there was a disastrous day when the gym was packed for a performance and the microphone system failed. The audience of parents started talking to one another, and the roar in the gym became so loud that when the play finally started no one in the audience realized it — they couldn’t hear anything but themselves.
Although the music teacher plays many instruments, including trumpet, drums, trombone, saxophone, flute, and bassoon, his personal favorites are the clarinet and piano. His musical taste leans toward opera and orchestra music. For many years, in fact, he worked an outside gig performing with the orchestra of Dowling College, which supplements its undergraduate musicians with music teachers. “I love the orchestra,” Mr. Urban said.
One warm day he drove his beloved Mustang to school with the top down. As he arrived in the parking lot he had opera music blasting from his CD player. A student admonished him, saying, “Mr. Urban, it’s not that kind of car. That car is probably crying listening to that music.”
Mr. Urban keeps a boat at a marina in Westhampton Beach and plans this summer to take a cruise up the Hudson to Lake Champlain. He also looks forward to spending more time with his family, including two young grandsons, whose mere mention brightens his smile. “I think I’ll take a couple of years and take the time to figure out what I’m going to do next, like a college student,” he said.
Come September when classes start up again, he’s not sure how he’ll feel. “I’ll probably see a school bus and cry,” he said, smiling as he walked into a gym full of kids.