As an Auburn High School student in the early 2000s, John Liberatore would use his study hall periods and lunch breaks to sneak into the auditorium and play its grand piano.
Because a grand piano isn't exactly subtle, people caught on to what he was doing, Liberatore said, and it eventually become a "sanctioned activity."
That same passion for music will lead Liberatore — now a composer and assistant professor of music theory and composition at Notre Dame — back to Auburn. He is one of five former students who will be inducted into the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction by the Auburn Education Foundation in May.
Liberatore, 34, who graduated from Auburn High in 2003, estimates he has written around 40 pieces professionally. His work has been performed in prestigious venues such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall, and in venues as far away as Asia and South America. His academic experience includes a bachelor's degree from Syracuse Universe and a doctorate in music composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He began at Notre Dame in the fall of 2015.
Bonny Blair, co-chair of the Hall of Distinction event and chair of the foundation's resource development committee, praised Liberatore's career and abilities.
"What he has accomplished at his age is nothing short of astounding," Blair said.
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Blair said the foundation's selection committee, which had seven members this year, tried to cover a range of ages and fields when picking honorees.
"Every single year we are blown away and so honored to celebrate the greatness that comes from having had an Auburn public schools education," Blair said. "I think it has extra meaning because you're being honored by your own hometown."
Liberatore said he was surprised and "incredibly humbled" by the honor when he heard in the fall that he would be receiving it.
Some of Liberatore's oldest memories involve music, he said, as his father plays folk guitar and his grandfather had taken piano lessons decades before. But they both played music by ear instead of sheet music. Liberatore remembers his grandfather playing the piano, which Liberatore recalled as "this mysterious thing."
"I wanted to crack the mystery of this," he said. While he didn't go all-in on it at first, "By the time I went to Auburn High School, I was already set on that path."
Liberatore admitted he's glad he was "a little naive" when he graduated about the trials that would come with pursuing music in the real world.
"There was no guarantee in music," he said. "I'm always reminded of how incredibly lucky I am. I've worked hard to be accomplished but at the same time, a lot of people have worked hard to be accomplished."
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Liberatore said that while luck has been part of his success, it is critical for people to make the effort to position themselves to take advantage of those fortunate opportunities. He said it is important for one's eye to be trained on the next level of what they want to achieve. Liberatore noted that he had withstood hundreds of rejections before starting at Notre Dame.
Liberatore said his Auburn school career involved many fond memories, and also credited the quality of teachers he had. A memory he had that sticks out, he said, was when he performed a piece he wrote at a senior assembly. He suspects someone had underestimated how long the piece was supposed to be, because once he hit the climax of the piece, student ushers removed him from the stage. While he was furious at the time, in retrospect he believes that experience emphasized how monumental a force music was — and still is — in his life.
When talking about the advice he would give current Auburn students, Liberatore said it is important for them to relish the time they spend working toward their goals.
"The pursuit is not only worth it, but you can enjoy and live your life," he said.