In Alumni, Bands, Faculty and Staff

Centennial Middle School band director Peter Werner reached out to his former professor Don Peterson after the cancellation of the State Junior High Band Festival

After preparing throughout the last year, the band students of Centennial Middle School in Provo were finally at the State Junior High Band Festival. But at the close of the first day — the night before the band was scheduled to perform — the festival was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.

Centennial Middle School band director Peter Werner also serves as assistant director of the BYU Cougar Marching Band. (Courtesy of Peter Werner)

“As the students came to get their instruments from their band lockers to take home to practice in preparation for the next day, I broke the bad news to them,” said band director Peter Werner, a School of Music alum and assistant director of the BYU Cougar Marching Band. “They were devastated, some even leaving in tears. They had worked extremely hard all year to perform at the festival, and now the opportunity was being taken from them.”

But Werner wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. As most schools in the state — including Centennial — were still open and functioning relatively normally at this point in time, Werner decided that he would give the band a mock-festival experience on their home turf. He reached out to his former professor Don Peterson — who was himself waiting on word regarding BYU’s response to the pandemic and the immediate future of the School of Music — for help. 

“I was in multiple bands with Dr. Peterson while in school and have had continued contact with him; I knew that he would love to help if he was available,” said Werner. “Amazingly, he answered back quite quickly and agreed to come. I was so excited. Performing at the festival is a great honor, but more importantly a great venue for the students and myself to learn how to become better musicians. I knew that Dr. Peterson could help us do just that.”

Werner’s students came dressed up and ready to play. They would record their performance and receive feedback from Peterson, who would serve as adjudicator.

BYU School of Music professor Don Peterson. (Madeline Mortensen/BYU Photo)

“I went in and listened to them rehearse a little while before they even knew I was there,” said Peterson, who serves as director of bands at BYU. “It was just so rewarding to see them so focused and working so hard. You could tell they were disappointed, but they played so well. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing students reach their potential in music. You can see it and feel it in their performance.” 

Peterson recorded his comments — just as an adjudicator at the festival would have — and was able to work with the band and give them tips and ideas.

“There were so many aspects of their performance that were of the highest quality, and they were glad to hear the specifics of what they had done well,” said Peterson. “But their ears were so well attuned to excellence that they readily accepted my suggestions for what it would take to go even beyond their superior performance.”

“It was a treat for me,” he added. “This all happened right when we were learning what was going on at BYU, so it was a moment of fun relief for me to see the excitement of kids doing excellent work and playing great music.”

Don Peterson serves as Wind Symphony director and director of bands in the BYU School of Music. (Madeline Mortensen/BYU Photo)

The experience carried additional meaning for Peterson as he witnessed the ways in which Werner is shaping the next generation of musicians. 

“I love seeing young people experience music, and it’s twice as rewarding to see a former student be the one to get them started,” said Peterson. “And Peter did so well — when the festival was cancelled, he could have just given up, but the first thing he did was reach out to see if he could find some kind of an alternative.”

In turn, Werner was proud of his own students and the way they were able to make the best of a difficult situation.

“It was amazing to see the difference in the students from the day before,” he said. They had been so disappointed and upset, but you wouldn’t know it the next day. Despite the fact that it was in our school’s auditorium, the students took it very seriously. It was probably one of the best days I’ve experienced teaching.”

Werner is grateful for Peterson’s willingness to help and the effect he had on the Centennial band students.

“I was so touched that Dr. Peterson would drop everything and come right over to help these students,” said Werner. “It was great to have him work with the band after their performance and help them get even better. I think all involved felt a special camaraderie during such a strange and unsettling time. It felt so good to perform music despite such uncertainty in the world.”

School of Music professor Don Peterson hopes that students continue to practice and strengthen their appreciation for music even when they are unable to perform together. (Nathalie Van Empel)

While Peterson received praise from several parents of the band students for going above and beyond, he saw the opportunity as a natural part of belonging to a community and giving back to those around him.

“I’m trying to pay it forward — somebody did that for me when I was young, and people would come and help me when I was starting out teaching at American Fork High School,” said Peterson. “Music is an art that’s shared by a community; it’s not just written and then done. I get so much joy from music and seeing the glow other musicians get when they know they’ve done well.”

This communal aspect of music makes the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 and social distancing all the more difficult for the music community — students and professionals alike. Peterson encourages young musicians to let appreciation and gratitude for music overcome feelings of discouragement in the wake of cancelled performances and isolated practice.

“Now is a good time to be listening to music and continuing to prepare your craft for when you can get back to performing with others,” he said. “Try to feel what the music has to say to you while you’re practicing — that can be really healing. One of my college band director friends said something along the lines of, ‘imagine how good it will feel and how passionate we’re going to be when we all eventually go back to our ensembles, knowing what it was like to go without.’” 

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