Person of the Week
Leaving the GHS Stage: Boates Retires from GHS Music Department
After 20 unforgettable years at Guilford High School (GHS), T. Thomas Boates III has left the stage, retiring as GHS Music Department chair, director of the Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble, and instructor of several music classes. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier)
After 44 remarkable years in music education, including 20 unforgettable years with Guilford High School (GHS), T. Thomas Boates III has left the GHS stage, retiring as GHS Music Department chair, director of the Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble, and instructor of AP Music Theory, Music Theory, Improvisation, and Basic Musicianship through Guitar.
On a very bright note, Tom will still be taking the stage as a professional trombonist, playing jazz gigs and festivals across the country, in Canada, around New England and, especially for his local fans, with Bill’s Seafood Jazz All Stars on Friday nights at Bill’s Seafood in Westbrook.
“The band’s been there about 40 years; I’ve been in it 15 or 16 years. We have a lot of fun. It’s a great Friday evening for everyone,” says Tom, who also plays traditional jazz with the Wolverine Jazz Band of Boston and the Williams Reunion Jazz Band of Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
In fact, Tom’s professional trombone playing is the reason he found his way to Connecticut and GHS. A Massachusetts native, Tom spent 21 years of his music career leading a triumphant, award-winning high school marching band program in his native state.
“I went to UMass at Amherst, and my first job was in the center part of Massachusetts, on the New Hampshire border [as] a high school band director for three years. I then moved on to a very big, very prominent competitive marching band program in the state in South Hadley, Massachusetts,” says Tom. “During that time, I began to play trombone professionally, and that began to really take off the last five or six years of being there, so that I was playing a lot in Connecticut near the end.”
Luckily for the GHS Music program, Tom decided to get certified to teach in Connecticut.
“I thought it might be a good chance to move closer to all the trombone playing, as well as keep teaching,” he says.
When an opening came up at GHS, which was already well established as school music program powerhouse, Tom put in his application. In what he describes as a “very wonderful happenstance,” Tom’s name was one with which GHS Band Director Mark Gahm had become very familiar.
“He was getting his masters at UMass at the time, and happened to know a lot of my students because they were in his program. He saw my application in the pile,” says Tom, who was grateful for the recommendation and was thrilled to get the job.
Tom knew he was joining a dream team of music educators at a public school that went to great lengths to support its music programming.
“Guilford has taken it so seriously and taken the care to hire fabulous musicians. I’m humbled to have been hired here,” he says. “When I was hired, I truly felt like I’d been hired to come to the major leagues. I’d been a successful band director before this, and had all kinds of accomplishments, but this was a place, town-wide, where they understand the value of music.”
Tom says he will always be grateful for the opportunity he was given to be a part of the GHS Music Department program, even with the difficult challenge, at first, of taking up Jazz Ensemble, with which he was very familiar, and directing orchestra, which was new to him. Both directorships were passed on to Tom from another GHS music department legend, Jack Thompson, upon retirement.
“In college, I was a classical trombonist and played in orchestra as a trombonist, but not as a string player,” says Tom. “So the care and feeding, so to speak, of string instruments was new for me.”
Over the past two decades, Tom has done much to add to the GHS orchestra legacy. He grew its orchestra program from one orchestra to two and built the school’s renowned Symphony Orchestra.
“The orchestra was part of my job when I was hired, but it was one orchestra,” he says. “I don’t want to take away any credit from the younger students’ teachers, who were awesome in sending the kids up. But I really pursued it to the point where I hope that I made orchestra, for all the younger kids who play string instruments, a ‘you gotta do this in high school’ kind of experience, so that by about seven or eight years into my career, we closed in on having 90 string players.”
That was back at the old GHS building, where space was at a premium, Tom recalls.
“That stage couldn’t handle 40 string players, so 90 was just crazy,” he says.
He recounts a funny story of how one of his students, the Concert Mistress of the Year, was trying to get her friends to lend more movement and expression to their bows.
“And there they were, all crammed in together. So they just looked at her and laughed—not because it wasn’t true, but because it was physically impossible!” says Tom.
About 13 years ago, recognizing that GHS had other select, auditioned ensembles in the Music Department such as Wind, Jazz, and Voices, Tom introduced the idea of creating two orchestras.
“There was no Honors Orchestra like those other ensembles, and I felt there really should be. So, in around 2008, I proposed that we do two orchestras: one pretty much for the freshman class and one for auditioned members, which would be far more rigorous. So we did. And since then, we’ve done major works for orchestra, and I’m so proud of them.”
Tom’s proud of all the musicians he’s had the honor to teach and lead in music, including those he’s worked with through the GHS Jazz Ensemble, another group of outstanding players who perform at the highest level. He’s also incredibly honored to have led the GHS Music Department as its chair, and for his years working alongside consummate professionals including Gahm, former choral directors Kevin Buno and Tahme Adinolfe, as well as current choral director Rachel Allen, who joined the program in 2019.
“Guilford has an enormous Music Department, with usually in excess of 500 students involved,” says Tom.
There’s no doubt Tom can certainly be credited with helping to build interest in the program locally by knocking the socks off of parents and their young players during the annual Guilford Public Schools String Festival.
“One of my favorite things that I hear from a lot of the orchestra kids is about them seeing [Symphony Orchestra] play at the String Festival,” he says. “We usually hold it every year at the school—we didn’t have it last year or this year, but it normally happens—and grades 5 through 12 all perform in the same concert together. They all say that once they heard this orchestra, ‘I have to do that.’ That’s why we designed it, and so I’m very proud of that.
“And also it’s done at that time when 8th-grade parents are thinking about whether their kids should stick with orchestra,” he adds. “So I say to the Symphony Orchestra, ‘I want all of you who play sports to stand up,’ and about 80 percent of them stand up. ‘How many of you are in the National Honor Society?’ Most of group stands up. ‘How many take AP classes?’ Most of them stand up...and then I say to the parents, ‘Orchestra does not slow down these kids, or prevent them from their activities. In fact, it probably helps them in their activities. If nothing else, it’s a break in their academic day. It’s a different type of rigor, to be hands-on instead of sitting in a classroom.’”
News of the tremendous quality of musicianship at GHS has also brought some very serious high school musicians to town to play here. As department head, Tom says he’s fielded inquiries from parents around the country—and the world—who’ve heard of the GHS program and plan to move to town so their students can study here.
“St. Louis, California, Australia, North Carolina, Tennessee—parents call me to say that they’re moving into the area, they saw the [GHS Music Department] website, and they moved to this town because they want to be part of this program. That’s pretty cool,” says Tom. “And that’s something that I hope that the school board [recognizes], and I know that the realtors have told me—it is a selling point for people coming here.
“In any town, a music department generally says that a school is arts aware, and that’s good. And here, it’s humbling,” he says. “All these people come in to talk or call or write or email, and they’re so delighted because their children played in a program where they were, and when they come here, they’re usually not disappointed.”
That being said, Tom is proud to have helped offer a music experience at GHS that’s open to students of all interests and levels of ability.
“We are very firm in the fact that we are not here to train music majors,” says Tom. “We feel, and it’s been borne out, that music majors happen on their own. We have plenty of them, and we rejoice in them and help them all they can, but I think that would turn off most of the students [stating] ‘You’re here because you want to play in college.’ Well, you’re here because you want to play in orchestra, in band, or be in chorus and make music, and get something out of that. For the kids who decide they want to pursue it further, it’s terrific to watch them develop, and they are a tremendous inspiration for the kids all around.”
What makes the experience even more exceptional for all of the kids is that it is a part of a community education experience, he adds.
“I would say music is a community education experience, where, unlike a sports team, we don’t have a bench—everybody plays,” says Tom. “I might be the last chair and struggling along mightily, and you might be first chair have played since your mom had you in lessons at three years old.”
That’s one of the points Tom makes early on when working with string players in one of his classes.
“I ask them, ‘How many of you started playing in 5th grade, or in elementary school, or before that? We have a wealth of anywhere from 4 years’ to 12 years’ experience in this room, so don’t get discouraged.’”
Playing with peers who may be at a bit of a higher level also helps other students increase their own instrumental abilities, he adds.
“That’s the community part of it,” he says. “Our goal is a beautiful concert. My personal goal is I don’t want parents to cringe when they sit and listen. I want them to sit and just enjoy the performance.”
Tom says he often thinks of something he heard once while watching an interview with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who referred to “those awful school concerts you have to sit through.”
“And I thought, ‘Not if I can help it,’” says Tom. “Whether I’ve taught elementary schools or junior high schools, I don’t care what it is; we’re going to do the music to the best of our ability, so parents will be wowed by what we’re doing. But what really makes a difference is it’s got to feel good to you even if there’s nobody listening. Did it sound good to you, do you care? And the kids care a lot.
“They usually get very satisfied, or if not, when we evaluate a performance, they talk about it much more intelligently [vs. emotionally]. They all have ownership,” he says. “Isn’t that what you want out of community public education? A group of people coming together of diverse experiences, abilities and ages, and achieving whatever it is you want them to achieve? That is what it’s all about.”
With so many parents, students, alumni, and community members who have come to experience musical achievements presented under Tom’s tutelage, the news that he planned to retire, which he shared at the beginning of May, came as a bit of a shock.
“When I told my two top groups—Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble—I was going to leave, they were a bit shocked and a little emotional,” admits Tom. “So I told them my fantasy was that all the great musicians that I had, we would culminate in this great concert, then walk off—mic drop—into the sunset. But I said the truth is there’s always going to be fabulous musicians here. Always. There’s so many wonderful musicians that are coming back to this program next year. It’s time for me to move on, and I have every belief and hope that they’ll carry on, and keep doing it, because that will mean more to me than anything.”
While filling his shoes in the GHS Music Department may be a tall order, Tom says he feels there will also be great success for the next educator to join the program. For his part, he will help to foster that success by not attending live GHS performances for quite some time.
“I’m not sure how to pull this off, but I will not be present for probably a good five years for their performances. I just don’t want kids to be looking out there, looking for Mr. Boates,” says Tom, who lives in Guilford. “I know that whoever the new person is, they’re going to work really hard and they’re going to want to establish those relationships. It’s the hardest type of job there is, which is to sort of like to step onto an airplane at 30,000 feet and keep it flying. That takes a lot of skill to be able to do that, and hard work to keep it going. And I just feel like if there was anybody else in the cockpit, saying, ‘You should do it this way,’ that’s not going to help. If it needs to be done a different way to be successful, it needs to be done.”
While the pandemic kept many regular performances off the calendar during the past 15 months, the last few concerts of the school year did allow players to gather with Tom in person at GHS, albeit adjusted to allow for pandemic protocols.
“Our last concerts were live this year. We weren’t in the concert hall; they were all outdoor concerts, but they were both string and orchestra performances,” Tom says. “And they weren’t sitting beautifully arced around the conductor; they all had to be sitting straight on, each at their own stand. But they still sounded great. The Symphony Orchestra, in my opinion, hardly lost a step. They were really terrific about learning their music. So it was still a really beautiful performance.”
As for whether he feels he’s joined the ranks of the GHS musical education legacy, Tom says, “I would be very proud of that. I feel like Guilford’s legacy is that we speak in reverence for all those people who came [before], and if Boates is in that pantheon, I’d be humbled. It’s not what I did it for, but it’s nice to be recognized. I think music is very important. It obviously is my passion, and I think that passion was transferable or infectious enough that the kids caught it, too. I’ve had parents say to me, ‘It’s important to them, because it’s important to you.’”