Welcome to Texas Talk.
I'm Gilbert Garcia, metro columnist for the San Antonio Express-News.
On this show, we bring you in-depth one on one conversations with some of the most fascinating figures in Texas politics, sports, culture and business.
At the age of 18, Troy Peters arrived in Philadelphia to study at the Curtis Institute of Music.
When he asked a policeman for directions to the conservatory, the cop informed him that the Philly orchestra happened to be the best in the world.
Peters was struck by the fact that a highbrow music ensemble had forged such a strong connection to its community that a cop on the street was bragging about it.
Over 28 years as a music educator, 14 in Vermont, and the past 14 with the youth orchestras of San Antonio.
Peters has dedicated himself to building those kinds of connections by bringing together musicians of different genres and different generations and celebrating the sounds of the community he serves.
Tonight, we'll talk about the power of music, education, the role of classical music in our society, and his own remarkable career as a conductor, composer and musical performer.
Let's get started.
Troy, thanks for being on Texas Tech.
It's a pleasure.
You've now devoted 28 years of your life to music education, 14 years with the Vermont Youth Orchestra and now 14 years with your Youth Orchestra of San Antonio.
When did you realize that working with young musicians was something you wanted to do?
Well, you know, I grew up in a great youth orchestra myself in Tacoma, Washington, near Seattle.
But I didn't even think I was going to have a career in music when I was in high school.
And I gradually found my way there.
Studied composition in the Curtis Institute of Music at the University of Pennsylvania.
But while I was in school, a little job opportunity came up to become the assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
And there had been a string of Curtis students who had done that job.
And I was the next in that line.
And I realized that I loved that opportunity to help younger musicians fall in love with this art form, because that's what I had experienced.
I didn't grow up around classical music.
And so one thing led to another.
And I looked around when I was 26 and it was like, This is what people are paying me to do, and I love it.
And so it's been the centerpiece of my career ever since.
You mentioned growing up in Tacoma, Washington.
You were born in Scotland.
Was your dad stationed there or how did that happen?
My dad was in the U.S. Navy, and so I was born in Scotland while he was stationed there.
And then the first two years of my life, we moved all over the place.
We were in Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Diego, Minnesota.
But when I was eight years old, my dad retired from the Navy.
We settled in Tacoma and that.
So that's home.
That's where my mom still is.
And it's where I grew up as a musician and everything else, right?
As you said, you were not really in a musical family or you didn't really have necessarily have a lot of music.
Was what was it that kind of activated that love of music was a listening experience you had?
Was it a teacher or what was the spark for you?
You know, it was a series of of big moments.
The first one was in fourth grade wonderful teacher named Kristin Turner walked into my fourth grade class in the fall and said, We're starting strings and it's going to be fun.
And she held up a violin and a cello and all these things, but she also held up a viola and I was intrigued that there was an instrument I'd never heard of.
What is a viola I want to do?
I want to do that.
And so I became a viola player.
And then there were, like I say, a sort of series of epiphanies.
The biggest one was when I was 17.
I was all set to study law and become involved in politics, probably not as an elected official, but maybe on the policy side.
And I was selected for a Hearst Foundation thing called the US Senate Youth Program, went to Washington, spent a week in the US Senate working in Scoop Jackson's office, who was a Washington state senator and loved it, but also found myself looking around and saying, There's an awful lot of people here working 18 hour days who don't seem very happy.
And then I came back home and played a youth orchestra concert the next day and playing Copland's Appalachian Spring.
I was sitting there in the middle of the performance thinking like, Oh, wait a minute.
This feeds me in a way that that, that other experience didn't.
And so that was kind of the biggest of a series of moments that made me say, Maybe this is what I want to do.
Given, you know, your your experiences with with young musicians over the years, I'm curious what your take is on the the the question of how much music, aptitude or an affinity for music is genetic because we often see you will see celebrated musicians and their kids playing.
I think I mean, one famous example I think of is like David Crosby, who didn't know his child, I think for a long time, and they met when when his child son was an adult and his son was very musical, too.
So I wonder how much of it you think is genetic and how much of it is environmental when when someone a young person picks up music?
All I can do is look at my own experience, which is that ultimately I went to school with people who were world class.
And I was I was very lucky and I was sort of in over my head when I got there.
And part of it was they all worked harder than I did.
When I got there, I realized they had all practiced more hours than I had practiced and I had catching up to do.
And certainly some of some people have an affinity and that affinity might be genetic.
I suppose that that, you know, you have you learn more quickly or the skills to have a great ear or something, right?
But ultimately, the people who do the most work, in my experience, are the people who have the most success in this field.
And that's not just in classical music.
I mean, I've seen that over and over again with my with my friends in pop and rock music and hip hop and all kinds of styles, Like it's the people who put in the hours, who are the ones who have the most fluency and the most ability to to move people.
Because you can only move people if you can actually play the instrument or have control of your voice to do the thing you're trying to do.
Few years back, when Joshua had a tribute concert to David Bowie, I remember you talking about what an inspiration he'd been to you and I.
My memory is that you talked about playing in a rock band yourself when you were younger.
Did you play bass?
I think that's when I played bass.
I played a lot of things, although electric bass and viola were kind of my two primary instruments.
What kind of what kind of batteries are a band that stands out to you from that period?
I mean, I've, you know, I have the band, the music that I loved the most was David Bowie, Prince Elvis Costello.
Yeah, that was kind of the core of my eighties passion.
And it's all three have some there's overlap, but there's a lot of differences there, too.
And incredibly eclectic, all of them, right?
But they're great.
They're all people who were about blurring lines, and they're all people whose career has evolved dramatically.
And I was fans when when those evolutions were happening, I was watching it all happen.
So that's part of it.
The bands I was in, we were playing R.E.M.
songs and U2 songs and Elvis Costello songs, and I also played the funk band for a little while just to try and learn how to to have that technique as a bass player because of a different style of playing.
So I wanted to just try and figure out, you know, how can I pop and snap and do all those things.
And we weren't great, but I got I got better at it.
So one things I think has been really special that your work with the youth orchestras has been the way you've sort of brought together musicians of different genres, different generations.
In Vermont, you had the Youth Orchestra collaborate with Trey Anastasio from Phish, and I think he went to college in Vermont and then started the band there.
So he had roots there in San Antonio.
Among other things that you've done, you've had a concert devoted to Emilio Navarro's, a local Tejano legend.
Why do you think why has it been important for you to make those connections, that blurring lines between styles of music, but also bringing the community into into what you're doing?
Well, I think ultimately my main job and honestly, I think every orchestra's main job should be to create value for the community that I'm in.
So I'm I was in Vermont, I'm here in San Antonio.
I want young musicians to experience Brahms and Sebelius and all kinds of other masterpieces of music that changed my life when I was a kid.
But I also want audiences to recognize themselves and recognize their community and what they're seeing on stage.
So sometimes I have sometimes I'm guest conducting or I'm working with a group or I'm just doing whatever the job is.
The job is show up and do this family concert or do this Pops concert.
But if I'm involved in program design, a lot of the time I'm asking myself, What can I do that is unique?
What can I do that nobody else has ever done?
So when I moved, I moved to San Antonio shortly before Emilio's death.
And so when his funeral happened and I saw the impact that he had on this community, I said, Hey, I need to listen to more of this music, because clearly it means a lot to people.
And B, I got to be a I got to be a part of this if I can if I can if I can do it in a way that doesn't feel like a carpetbagger, if I could do it in a way that feels like I'm authentically trying to connect with what's here.
And so then as the time went by and I got to know his sons and some of the I got to know some of the musicians who had been in his band, his bass player son was a Joseph musician.
And so there were all these opportunities to sort of get to know folks and say, well, yeah, I can do this in a way that that honors his legacy.
So I think I think that's ultimately what I'm always trying to do, whether I'm working with Jose or whether I'm just conducting a professional orchestra.
I'm always trying to ask myself, how can we do a program that means something here?
Because we can all go on Apple Music or iTunes or Spotify or whatever, YouTube and find whatever we want to listen to.
And you've talked about getting getting past the idea of just celebrating dead Germans.
I mean, because that's always going to be part of what any orchestra does.
But you're I think you've emphasized the fact that you have to do more than that.
I think so.
I mean, and I want to be clear.
Like I grew up without Brahms and Beethoven, right?
That wasn't a part of my childhood.
So when I found it, I fell in love hard for it, and I love it.
And I get the reverence that we have in the classical music world for it.
I think there's a reason we come back to it.
But I think we can we can do lots of things we can do.
We can do more music by women.
We can do more music by composers of color, both from today and who were neglected in the past.
And Brahms is not going anywhere.
That music will still be there for us.
And so, you know, it's it's also just my own journey as an artist that I want to I want to find more things.
I want to I want to listen to Radiohead's okay computer and try to orchestrate it, try to figure out how to make these sounds with an orchestra.
And it is so much fun.
That's that's the challenge.
And I also want to do the Brahms German Requiem, which I still have never conducted.
Like there's all these things out there in the world that I that I want to do.
You mentioned Radiohead, that was, I think, the first example of what your has been doing this classic album series where you you will devote a concert to an, a great album by a pop or rock artist.
You did Radiohead, you did John The Beatles, you done Prince and others.
Where did that idea come from?
Well, it was it was literally saying, okay, what what makes San Antonio San Antonio And it culturally and and what and what are the things that we can connect with.
So I moved here thinking, oh, we're close to Austin, we should connect to Austin.
And then, of course, I realized real quick, no, we're not like you only think San Antonio is close to Austin if you don't live in San Antonio.
Then once I got here, I was like, Oh, this is its own place.
But what what I was delighted to find is a really vibrant indie rock scene, especially ten or 12 years ago when I was thinking about this, I was falling in love with a bunch of local bands.
I had heard about Girl in Tacoma before I even moved here, and and then I got to know Buttercup and I got to know all these other local bands and went, I want to do something with them.
What if what is the thing we can do that is that kind of crosses over our territory?
Well, in the orchestral world, one of the things we do is kind of revivify masterpieces, right?
So what if you took a great classic record and then invited all these artists to make a song their own?
So we have 12 different artists come on stage.
Each artist does one song in their own voice, and everybody we ask wanted to do it.
Every band we reached out to was excited about it.
I mean, Ramirez is a wonderful local musician, helped me get to know bands I didn't already know, and then that turned into a tradition that we did every year and got until the pandemic hit.
We did a new one every year and kept looking for new bands.
It gave me an excuse to keep challenging myself, to listen and hear things going on here in San Antonio.
One of the great live music expe in my years here was the mariachi version of for instance, When Doves Cry that year, which was it had to be seen and heard, too, to be believed.
It was it was fantastic.
I'm not going to lie.
I'm proud of that one.
When we did Purple Rain, I really wanted to have stylistic variety.
So we had we had small combo jazz and we had smooth jazz and we had bluegrass and we had mariachi.
We had kind of experimental, kind of metal instrumental and all kinds of things.
And it really created a lot of very exciting texture.
They're not all the same level of success, right?
Some of the songs were homeruns and some of them were, you know, stand up doubles, and some of them we barely got on base, but every one of them was an exciting journey for the musicians involved.
And the audience came along for the ride with us and people would come up and say, you know, what are you gonna do next?
And of course, bands started to pitch themselves to me, you know, lots of young musicians that way.
The most exciting part, though, honestly, is the young musicians in USA who then became part of the local indie music scene and in some cases became part of the national indie music scene today.
Darian Thomas, who grew up in those groups, is living in New York City and performing with Moses Sumney and has done for Tiny Desk concerts at NPR.
And that is all that's his work.
But those seeds were planted in those collaborations here in San Antonio.
I was curious to get your take on the state of music education in our schools over the years we've often heard that when schools have budget crunches that music programs or arts programs are the first time on the chopping block.
From what you can tell, what is the state of music education in K-through-12 schools compared to what it was when you were growing up?
Well, we're very fortunate in Texas, actually, and there are there are very few states in the country that value instrumental music as much as Texas.
And we often like to say that that part of that is because we value football, right?
That if you're going to have a football, you want to have a house, you're going to have a football game you want to have.
I hadn't thought of it that way, but it means that almost every school in this state has a band and most of them are really good.
There also are a lot of choir programs, Mariachi is less consistent and orchestra has less consistent.
Classical strings is less consistent.
And what's striking to me is the thing that concerns me is that in San Antonio, of course, we have all these different school districts and there is absolutely an unfair distribution of resources for instrumental music.
And so you'll see some districts with really strong, vibrant orchestra programs, and you'll see some districts where if you want to play the cello, you're out of luck, where that's just not something that happens in school.
So I think that to me is the real dilemma, that there's something going on in every public school district in the San Antonio region.
But the variety and depth of those offerings varies, as with all the other things related to school financing as you go from district to district.
Last year, after 83 years of San Antonio Symphony shut down after months of failed negotiations between the symphony board and musicians, we knew for a while we could see where things were going.
But but, you know, the symphonies had had struggles before and and were able to emerge from that.
What was your initial reaction when you found out that this was really going to.
I was devastated.
Honestly, I mean, I one of the things I learned over the last couple of years is that I know a lot less than I thought I did.
There were so many times where I thought I could see the chessboard laid out and how things would play out for there to be a solution.
And I was wrong.
It just did not play out the way I expected it to.
I'm very pleased that the San Antonio Philharmonic, which is the nonprofit formed by the musicians who had been in the San Antonio Symphony, has really had a great first season, and they're moving into their second season and they are doing excellent work.
I think there really is a future for orchestras in this town.
Other cities have had similar issues.
If if it didn't go as far as it did in San Antonio.
It's not it wasn't unique to San Antonio.
Symphonies have they have challenging.
It's a challenging environment out there.
When you look at, you know, obviously there's no there's no magic formula.
When you look at the what needs to be done to sort of engage the community.
But we're looking at, you know, the fiscal issues.
We're talking about, you know, the artistic side of it.
We're talking about the promotional side of it, because when I talk to people about the symphony in the past, you know, I'll hear different arguments for what needs to be done.
Some will say, well, it's just you have to have a much more aggressive, creative promotional effort.
You know, there are some who say you need to maybe a different artistic approach, a musical approach.
What what do you make of those those questions?
Well, I have a lot of friends and colleagues who were involved in a lot of the past decision making, and I think they did a lot of things right.
And I also honestly think there might have been better places, better better choices in some areas that can be made.
The bottom line for me is what I said earlier, that I really believe, and it is incumbent upon any orchestra to find a way to connect to the place it's planted.
And so what can you do That is San Antonio.
What can you do that matters to this audience and that that is not the only thing that fixes it, right?
That's not a magic bullet.
But but focusing on that can can make things better.
There are a lot of other factors there.
There are philanthropy factors that are a big part of this for sure.
But ultimately, I think that an orchestra needs to convince its community that it is organically part of its community.
The San Antonio Symphony did great things, but not everybody was convinced that they were woven into this community as powerfully as they should be.
What I'm excited about is I see the San Antonio Philharmonic doing a great job at laying the foundation for that.
And on the sort of the financial side of the business model is that is that viable?
Because I think what you're talking about just the the musical side of things and what they're doing.
I think a lot of people are excited about that.
But is do you see it as viable?
Because, you know, musicians have to make a living?
Do you have any questions or concerns about that?
Well, I'll be I think really the challenges that that they're it's a sustainable thing to have an orchestra, but it's never an easy thing to have an orchestra.
There is no community in the United States where an orchestra's management is an easy process.
The because we're we're preparing a cultural product that doesn't sustain itself with on ticket sales and that by the way, is not unique to orchestras, right?
I mean, that's true.
There's a reason why why the San Antonio Spurs are involved in all kinds of promotional sponsorships and broadcast partnerships and all these things, because any business, you've got to find revenue streams to offset expenses and all these kinds of things, right?
So for an orchestra, that's a huge thing.
But I believe this community with the wealth that exists here, there are challenges here for sure, but there are plenty of resources in this community.
And we look around at the country at other cities this size.
We can have an orchestra here that's that is large and vibrant, and there is a path forward.
I'm not smart enough to be the one in charge of it, Gosh knows.
But but I know it can happen because you look you look at Detroit, you look at San Diego, you look at Indianapolis, you look at all kinds of communities that have some similar demographics or some similar population sizes or some like all of these things.
There are models of of communities where these things are working quite well.
In addition to all the other work you're doing, you play in an indie folk group called the Mondo Mills, who put out a CD in 2021 called Fort Knox.
You play, I think, mandolin, melodica, keyboards.
I think you do some string arrangements, do backing vocals, which was really revelatory to me because I didn't know you sang, but you sing very well.
How did this band come together?
And I guess what does it fulfill in you that this is obviously a different approach to music and you spend a lot of your time?
Yeah, well, I mean, I the the true story of this is that when I moved to San Antonio 14 years ago, I found one of my friends from high school had already gotten here.
A guy named Richard Keith, who I grew up with in Tacoma, Washington, was already living here and working for the city of San Antonio, and he and I started hanging out and, you know, we're raising our kids together and and playing music together.
And that was a duo that turned into a trio, that turned into a quartet.
And we started to play out more and more and yeah, just gradually grew.
And Richard's actually just a really good songwriter and it just became this thing that really nourished me, even though I spend a lot of my time.
Obviously being a musician, the music that I do in the band feeds me in a different way than than my work, partially because I'm not in charge, right?
Part of being a conductor is actually being in charge a lot, and it's wonderful and it's exhausting.
And so in the band, I'm just one guy.
In the band, you kind of you're kind of liberated from that burden.
I don't have to make as many decisions and I get to sit back and try and listen and follow, and that builds my musicianship.
But it also just kind of feeds a different part of my personality.
So because being a conductor is absolutely about trying to trying to get everybody in the room to get the best results, trying to create an environment where everybody can do their best work.
I'm the only musician on stage who's not making any sound, and so I've got to be about unleashing their potential.
And that's wonderful.
But it's it's hard work, especially with professional musicians.
It's very hard work to try and get them to all work together to make that kind of thing happen.
I was curious over the 28 years you've been doing this, our world has changed so much.
We have so many more distractions.
We have social media, we have the Internet.
And I wonder if you've seen over that time a change, for better or worse in the young musicians who are coming in to perform youth orchestras have.
Is there a change that you've been able to discern from the musicians that that you were teaching in the mid-nineties versus what you're experiencing now?
Yeah, I, I honestly feel like that I some of this the complaining that I hear some colleagues do about about kids today I'm not experiencing my kids Yowza are smart and engaged and fired up they are a little bit more distracted than the students I had almost 30 years ago.
I think we all are.
Yeah, we all are.
I am too.
I have a harder time studying scores in the nineties, so.
But they also have these resources, you know, that they can literally go and listen to anything they want.
I can mention a piece of music or I can say, You need to play this like John Bonham, and they'll go home and listen to Led Zeppelin and come back the next week and do that.
30 years ago, if I did that, they would have to like, go to the library or buy a CD or two track this time.
Now they can like listen to it in their in the car on the way home on their phone.
And that actually for musicians is a huge resource to be able to get your ears into anything you want to hear.
When I had to buy that import LP to get the piece of music I wanted, when it finally came, I listened to it for hours and saw it.
Yeah, you can be a little different when you can get anything you want, but I see so much resilience and so much energy there that I respect and love.
Troy, thank you so much for being on the show.
I really appreciate it.
Oh, my pleasure.
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