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On the Beat: Peter Horton and the Trumbull Golden Eagles

Josh Harris • Archives • November 16, 2011

Pride, attitude, and concentration. These are the tenets that were drilled into Peter Horton when he was a young musician in drum corps. And these same concepts have served as the foundation upon which Horton, now director of Trumbull High School’s Golden Eagle Band program, has developed one of the top all-around school music programs in the state of Connecticut for more than two decades, including a percussion ensemble that is a fixture at the WGI World Championships.

Peter Horton was introduced to musical performance at the age of eight, when he began playing bugle in a drum and bugle corps. Quickly progressing musically, Horton later joined the newly formed Stateliners Drum Corps of Greenwich, Connecticut, which went on to have, according to Horton, “one of the best first year drum corps records in history,” winning both of their circuit championships as a small drum corps. Meanwhile in his high school music ensembles, Horton was gaining invaluable experience from his choral director, a priest whom Horton cites as “a great musician,” noting that the “choral aspect was an integral part” of his formative musical experience. Enthralled with all aspects of music – composition, performance, the camaraderie of the ensembles, and satisfaction of teamwork – Horton went on to study music education and taught in several New Jersey schools before making his way back to Connecticut and to Trumbull High School, an institution that already had a well developed music program.

In this recent SBO interview, Peter Horton talks about the evolution of drum corps, its connection to music education, and how he has integrated lessons from his youth, such as the importance of consistency and rewards of teamwork, into the ensembles he now leads.

School Band & Orchestra: Would you talk about what the program at Trumbull High School was like when you came on board?

Peter Horton: When I got here, the program had been established with three other directors. It was always one of the stronger concert and marching programs in the area. We just took that and kept developing it over the last 20-plus years. We keep adding more and more kids, and we’re at our largest numbers now, between 140 and 160 kids. It’s been a great run. The students understand what it’s all about, and they work really hard at making this one of the best programs around.

SBO: What were your initial goals upon arriving at Trumbull?

PH: At the outset, my goal was to maintain what had already been going on, while also getting the students used to me and my style, and well as what we wanted to accomplish. Finding the right staff and the right people to work with the kids was a critical piece. We worked on building up the musicianship aspect of the program and finding the kids who liked playing great music in all kinds of styles. From there we proceeded, and we got better each year. This has been our consistent goal, to improve the program, to have the kids be better year and year after.

SBO: It’s easy enough to say, “We want to get better each year,” but what are some of the specific actions you took to help make that happen?

PH: From a musicianship aspect, one of the key messages I work at getting across is having kids understand their responsibilities to their instruments: the practice time they need to put in to become a better musician. Improving individual abilities is really important, and that starts by getting them to understand how to perform, and have them work on their playing techniques through lessons and the music that we play. We give them different varieties of music, work on reading, and support them on articulations and phrasing. And we also put an emphasis on what I call, “the other half of the music.” Making it music, so that when they perform, the audiences understand and enjoy what we’re playing. The kids have responded really well to that. We have had some very emotional programs that we’ve put out over the years. My focus is getting the kids to learn how to perform all the time and the first time.

They need to understand that every time they sit down to play, they are performing on their instruments. In order to do that, it takes focus on the specific technical aspects of playing, which we address through our lesson program and after school programs. The jazz, concert, and marching programs all work together to help kids develop and learn to play different styles and enjoy what they’re playing.

SBO: How has your drum corps experience shaped your perspective as a music educator, and what elements of that have you brought into your own program?

PH: Drum corps was the inspiration for me. It has evolved over the years. Their approach to great playing and the technical aspects of performing, as well as the changes in the visual and theatrical elements, is something that we’ve been watching closely and learning from. We try to keep up with the times and the musical styles that are out there. It’s helped us to evolve into the program that we are. I base a lot of it on consistency, on doing the same things every year. This goes back to something I learned from my baseball coach in high school: no matter who you were or what class you were in, when you came out for baseball, everybody worked together and learned together, and then we broke into a team. Well, we try to do the same thing with the band.

We have certain marching program basics that we go through every year, which every student in the program learns every year. We go over the same things in band camp, and it is the same with the musical aspects: the technique that we’re working to develop, the quality of sound, breath support – the technical aspects of the program. That consistency has helped us to remain one of the top programs in the area.

SBO: Consistency is an interesting concept, especially considering how much evolution there has been of late in the world of marching bands. What’s your take on where that field is going?

PH: They’ve gone from a military performance style through an evolution of the visual aspect, from a lot of straight line presentations to curves, and the music now is more supportive of the visual elements, which are much more complex. The visual aspects also support the music. The color guard involvement has gone from basic military moves to all kinds of dance and body movement. Incorporating that with the flags, sabers, and rifles. It’s just a major shift that has happened. A lot of kids, especially around where we are, don’t have much opportunity to participate in drum corps locally, so they’re getting that same experience that I had through the high school program now. There are those in the group that aspire to go on and perform with some of the DCI corps – I have a half dozen kids who are looking to audition for some of the top drum corps groups. It’s something that’s grown for the better, in that we’re producing great musicians at the high school level, and the drum corps have taken the musical aspect of the bands, and the bands have taken the visual aspect of the drum corps, and over the years, it’s really been a great melding together and bringing a lot of success to a lot of programs throughout the country.

SBO: What do you think that impact has been in terms of music education?

PH: I think it’s been good for music education. The students are more aware of what they need to understand about music. We get into the meaning of the music from the composer’s perspective, what they’ve written and why they’ve written it, and also, from an educational standpoint, they’re learning the discipline that it takes to learn the technical aspects of how to play their instruments. The discipline of this approach has helped my students strive to be better in their academics. Without the program, a lot of the kids might be floundering in other classes, but many of them are doing great things from an academic standpoint. Traditionally, music and the arts have fostered great academic achievement from students, as well as great musicians, and that’s the case here.

SBO: How does the emphasis on percussion carry over into the concert season?

PH: We have a strong winter percussion program, and that gives the kids the ability to branch out and perform on other instruments, to play a variety of styles of music. The percussion enhances all of the different styles of music that we play, not just the marching style of percussion and the marching shows that we do. However, even there, the students’ techniques are being honed and developed. So when they come into the concert program, they’re ready to perform with us. It gives us an opportunity for variety. I have the students switch instruments and play a different one on every piece. It also gives a lot more chance to play, also.

SBO: How would you compare the evolution in marching and drum corps with modern concert music?

PH: The music of today has grown. The great composers that are out there have a really good understanding of what school programs are looking for, as well as the things we’re trying to do to enhance our programs. We are getting a lot of literature that keeps us striving to be the best we can be. We choose levels that we know we can play, and we also choose music that we know we’ll have to work on to sound good, so we can improve technical abilities and the challenge education of music.

SBO: One of the consistent elements of drum corps and the marching world has been the focus on competition. How does that play a part in your music program?

PH: I wouldn’t be engaging in competitive events if I didn’t think we were doing it the right way, with the goal of enhancing our musical capabilities. We are all competitive in nature. We all want to compete and be the best out there. First place in the competitions is always a striving point, but it’s also to go out there and perform the best so that when you walk off the field that night, you can say to yourself that you did the best job that you could at that time. I think that just spills over into everything that we try to do.

I approach preparing for competitions the same way as I approach the concert work: I want the same sound as we have out on the field. I don’t want to come inside and have to re-teach anything or take a long time to make the transition from outdoors to indoors. Focusing on the fundamental aspects of music – performing, playing properly, breathing properly and all of the other techniques we really work on – has helped us in both the concert and marching areas.

SBO: How about developing that consistency – what’s your approach to that?

PH: We work on becoming the best that we can be each day and giving 100 percent all the time. Coming in where you left off the day before and making yourself a little bit better each and everyday. We work on a motto of pride, attitude, and concentration; developing pride in themselves and their approach to the program; the attitude of the proper way of performing; and the concentration level, which I think is the biggest factor on getting them to be able to focus, wipe out any other problems, and be able to perform for that eight or ten minutes. We then elaborate on that when we play concert pieces. It’s a big part of what we work on.

SBO: Is there anything that your program does that you think other band programs might benefit from considering?

PH: I know everybody in music education works hard and to the best of their abilities. Each program has it’s own unique obstacles to confront. If there’s one thing we do well that other bands might be well served to emulate, it would be the consistency of what we do, all the time and over and over. Getting that started with the program means that upperclassmen can begin to teach the freshman, sophomores, and anyone knew who comes into the group. You can give them the responsibilities of teaching the basics to their fellow students, as well as the traditions of the band and other aspects of the culture of the program. That concept has helped us build a solid base here.

SBO: After all these years, what’s the most gratifying aspect of being a music educator for you these days?

PH: I work hard at building an overall good relationship with the students and bringing forward the best of their abilities. It’s a great reward to see them go out and perform and really enjoy what they are doing. If the students aren’t enjoying themselves, that’s going to show in the performance. There’s a lot of hard work involved, so not every aspect is fun, but those performances are a culmination of what they’ve worked on for the week, for the season, and for the year. That’s where I get the most gratification; when they enjoy what they’re doing and everyone has a good time together as a family and a team.

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