2016-01-28 / Front Page

New Leaders Rock School Bands

By James Merolla


Don Chilton, with a life-long passion for music, now inspires students at Thompson MIddle School. Don Chilton, with a life-long passion for music, now inspires students at Thompson MIddle School. On a sweltering afternoon in the Louisiana bayou, little Don Chilton unfolded his orange and white record player and floated to the ceiling of his ­bedroom, lifted by the raspy vocals and brassy intonations of Louis Armstrong’s legendary horn.

“Armstrong was my inspiration. When I first heard him, I was in the third grade. When it came time to pick an instrument, I knew I wanted to play trumpet,” said Chilton.

Chilton has come a long way from Destrehan, La. By his estimation, he has been to 42 countries playing that trumpet in the U.S. Navy Showband during his 26-year Naval career, ultimately bringing all of that breath control to Thompson Middle School as its band director, where ironically his son attended during one of Chilton's Newport tours.

The Showband played at makeshift hospitals while medics treated those in need, particularly after the devastating 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.


Record player at Vinyl Guru Record Shop. Record player at Vinyl Guru Record Shop. They were the first U.S. Navy Band to play aboard hospital ships. At any given moment, Chilton said, band members might have to immediately shift from cadenzas to catheters, tempos to temperatures, musical ligatures to, well, medical ligatures.

“The band would do anything from helping move medical supplies, to painting an orphanage, and then we would perform,” said Chilton. “The Navy was music. That was just my job.”

Chilton now directs the Thompson band program, which was established in September of 1957 upon the opening of the school when Rogers High School relocated to Wickham Road. Its first director was John W. Stare, who was followed by Bernard

Morel, Phil Pelletier, Leland

Brown, Richie Price, Larry Mauk, Lori McDowell, Ian Gollub, and the current director, Chilton.


Under the guidance of instructor Brianna DeWitt, Thompson Middle School orchestra students are building upon their success. 
(Image supplied) Under the guidance of instructor Brianna DeWitt, Thompson Middle School orchestra students are building upon their success. (Image supplied) Continuing to pay tribute to Armstrong, Chilton is also the leader of the Larry Brown Swinglane Orchestra, a 19-piece group that includes a few of his former Navy mates playing the best of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Armstrong, James Brown, and the range of music that drove the 20th century.

Last year, Chilton asked departing director Alan Bernstein if Thompson had a fight song. When Bernstein said no, Chilton wrote one. The marching band played it in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Next, the song needed lyrics, so the teachers held a schoolwide competition and gave the winners a pizza party. With new lyrics (including a chant), the song made its debut at the final school concert last spring.

“Parents seem pleased with what we are doing," said Chilton. "For me, it’s a team effort; we’re all working together, creating opportunities for the kids.

Chilton is among several new faces and fresh personalities in the department, and the music program appears to be on a roll. Don "Doc" Smith recently took the reins of the band at Rogers High School, and Brianna DeWitt is in her second year as orchestra director at both Thompson and Pell Elementary.

Smith plays a fine horn, and like his fellow musician and educator Chilton, brings the flavor of a varied career to his new position.

Among the experiences Smith hopes to provide for his students, he is working on an exchange concert with the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music in April; it would be the kind of eye-opening trip that begins to turn around a district’s reputation for musical excellence.

A native of Dunmore, Penn. (a Scranton suburb), Smith was the director of bands at Northern Michigan University and the director of athletic bands and coordinator of music education experiences at U.R.I., as well as the former director of instrumental music at South Kingstown High.

Arriving at Rogers in mid-September, Smith first focused on getting up to speed and is now anticipating a busy concert season during the second semester. “The music team and our supervisor were extremely welcoming and supportive during my transition,” he said. “And I am looking forward to working with them on what is only the beginning of the growth of an outstanding music program. One of the attractions to this job was the people I would be working with, and they seem to be exceeding most of my expectations.”

Smith praised Chilton’s trumpet skills, while downplaying his own.

“We have performed together in several different settings, but mostly in jazz and big band. He is an outstanding performer pursuing a rather regular active professional performance career after school,” said Smith. “While I have a few performances here and there, I will need to find some more time to practice my trumpet playing before approaching his level.”

Smith said he was hired to enhance the “instrumental” side of his position and “expand the great work done by Bernstein in orchestra and jazz, especially by adding athletic and parade performances for the band.

“We have already demonstrated to the students that they will be able to perform successfully at high-level events.” They performed at Gillette Stadium in October for the Massachusetts Band Day halftime show, and were a part of the live TV broadcast of the URI vs. Richmond men’s basketball game on Jan. 5.

Smith’s marching band is also scheduled to appear at this year's Newport’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Police Parade on May 1, and at several other major events in the state before 2016 comes to a close. The large ensembles at Rogers have two concerts planned, a classical concert in March and pops concert in June, as well as supporting the school musical in April.

DeWitt teaches orchestra and a general music program for kids at Thompson, as well as band at Pell. She recently initiated the first junior chapter of the Tri-M Music Honor Society. Tri-M, formerly known as Modern Music Masters, is a national organization sponsored by the National Association for Music Education.

As orchestra director she is steadily gaining the recognition of her students and colleagues as a member of the school community, and building upon the successes she is rapidly developing.

“Our music team is really starting to fall into place,” she said, “and work together to make every aspect of the program the strongest it can be. Don Chilton and I are always talking about events that we need to plan, ideas to get the students more involved, or just lessons gone awry.”

Collaboration, for DeWitt, is everything. “The amount of teamwork that goes into every aspect of our program – whether it’s adding calligraphy to the Student of the Month certificates, or lending a hand at concerts – is necessary to create a positive, thriving, environment for the students. I’m lucky to be able to say that it comes easy to us.”

She added that her biggest goal for ensembles, band, orchestra, and chorus is for students to “take ownership” of their music program. “I love the idea of connecting students in the different performing groups and helping them meet their own goals, and I would like to expand the honor society to include more of these interactions. I see the students taking on bigger service projects and performance opportunities in the future.”

The students, in fact, entered a Disney Channel contest which would bring a Disney star to the school, and have just found out they are finalists. They will need YouTube and social media votes to win it, and that campaign that is already underway. “The enthusiasm from the students leaves me with no doubt that they will continue to influence the activities of the honor society in the future,” said DeWitt.

Right now, her focus is on building the program through concerts, field trips, and student success. “Retention and ensemble strength can only happen when the students feel like they belong there and that they can be successful. This year the advanced orchestra at Thompson is attending its first out-of-state orchestra festival, where they will be adjudicated by judges,” she said. “All of the ensembles,” she explained, “are looking towards including more ambitious performances that will raise the bar in the future.”

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