NPS music director retires
Nome’s long-time music director Ron Horner retires at the end of this school year. Mr. Horner has seen class after class begin as kindergartners and advance on until they graduate from high school, growing musically and in every other way as well. After 19 years with Nome’s schools it’s time to turn the page.
Just back from a successful bear hunt, Mr. Horner on Monday reflected on his long tenure while sitting in the high school band room.
“I want to say how much I’ve enjoyed working with Nome’s kids over the years,” he said. “It’s been my privilege to work with lots of young people, lots of kids. Here in Nome, 19 years of watching kids grow up. Really great to watch kids grow up from kindergarten all the way up through 12th grade. It’s been a wonderful ride.”
Love of music began early in life for him.
“I’ve always enjoyed music. My mom told me I used to hum myself to sleep when I was six months old.” In preschool, the teacher would play the accordion and teach the kids songs. “I loved signing, I loved the songs I learned at school.” His first instrument was the accordion. “I started playing when I was around six-years-old.” He sang in elementary school and loved baseball at the same time. He grew up in Fresno, California, a town where the weather is always right for baseball. “We played baseball all the time,” he said.
He played baseball right up through a year of college ball on a scholarship at Spokane Falls Community College. During his second year there, the music teacher called him. “I hear you can sing,” he said. “Why don’t you come and sing in our afternoon choir?” It was a vocal jazz group. In addition to the singing, he met Kathy, who was later to become his wife.
During the summers he headed to Cordova to work in a cannery. Both he and Kathy had to work to pay for their education, so she also soon was traveling to Cordova. Horner was by then a student at Whitworth University in Spokane, and she was at Central Washington in Ellensburg.
“We would work hours and hours, sometimes weeks and weeks without a day off,” he said of their time at the cannery. “But when we’d get a day off we’d look at the beautiful surroundings or pick a mountain and go climb it or we’d hike to a lake. Or to a glacier. That’s how our relationship started, a love for music and a love for Alaska and the outdoors.”
The Horners have five kids, three girls and two boys. Kathy worked as a math and science teacher. Wherever they lived they worked in the schools and also the community church, doing music at both.
“We were doing music programs together. Whenever I’d be directing something I could count on Kathy to play the piano and help with the soloists and with the special parts. She’d be part of just about every performance along the way. So I’m very thankful for that team effort.”
They moved to Nome in 1999 from Southeast Alaska. The music program lacked consistency as there had been three teachers in the previous eight years.
“The change of teachers is hard on a program for lots of reasons,” said Mr. Horner. “When I got here, there were a few kids in the band but there was no choir. It was a challenge to get the band going.” There was an open period in the afternoon so he started a choir. That was in the second year in Nome. He took them to the Region 1 Band Festival, as it was called back then, and put the choir right in the middle of all the bands. “The other directors and the kids at the festival thought that was really cool.” That was the start of the chorale program. Bethel and then Kotzebue started choirs, then Unalakleet. Most recently, Dillingham started a choir. He soon got the idea to put all the choirs together at what was now called the music festival and form the festival choir. “I remember when there were no choirs in the region and now we’ve got 65 kids singing in the festival choir.”
He started out playing a tuba and trombone in Southeast, playing in a community band. “When I moved to Nome there was a need to get the pep band going. It was mainly an adult group back then. There was a group of adults and we had super support in the community,” he said. The community group played at the ballgames. Gradually, Mr. Horner got the students involved in the band, but the parents are always invited to play. “At that point I decided I needed to teach myself the trumpet because a pep band needs a strong trumpet. So I switched from low brass to trumpet. I’ve been playing trumpet for 19 years in the pep band, which I love.”
“Music is something that touches a person’s heart in a way that is so unique,” he said. “When a person plays an instrument there’s that eye hand coordination, there’s the counting, there’s hearing the pitch and the intonation. And then there are all the techniques that go with the particular instrument. And with singing, too, you’ve got the reading skills and the memorization. And then there’s the singing together, working together in a collaborative way. There are so many things happening in a child’s mind when they’re performing that makes it so unique to any other process at school. It’s really a valuable thing. The emotion involved is something that they’ll always remember.”
“I’ve got students who’ve helped me,” he said. “Michael Tocktoo has helped me learn the drums a little bit, he’s taught me a few things on the drums and on the guitar.” Mr. Horner began playing the guitar about six months ago because he’d always wanted to learn the electric guitar. Six years ago he acquired a tenor saxophone and played that for a few years.
“But what’s really funny is even though I’ve tried all these instruments and have enjoyed learning them, I pulled out my accordion. That accordion sat for almost 40 years. My mom brought it to me here in Nome and said ‘Don’t forget about this instrument.’” The accordion sat in its case for a couple years and Mr. Horner was afraid to open it, fearing it had rotted. But when he finally got it out it was perfect. “Our dry weather here in Nome preserved it and it plays beautifully. Even though I’ve played all these other instruments I’ve found that the sound of the accordion just is really comforting. It’s my childhood instrument. Just being able to play that again and share it with my family and also the kids here at the school.” During the music festival he played in one far corner of the cafeteria during lunch, just played songs while the kids were eating lunch. “It was fun to be able to share that. When a young person learns an instrument like that it stays with them their whole life. Because that’s when their brains are forming, when they’re about six- through about ten-years-old and even younger. If they can pick up a skill like playing an instrument during those early years when the brain is forming all those connections are there for good.”
Asked what advice he’d pass on to his legions of students here in Nome he said this: “I just want to encourage them to share music with their family. It’s a wonderful skill and activity to pass on. Even if it’s just encouraging their kids to be in music in school or be in choir, learn an instrument.” After thinking a bit he continued on. “I think it’s important for parents to be able to express themselves. It’s good for kids if the parents can express themselves musically, to hear their parents singing around the house, doing music, being involved in something that is expressive. It allows their kids to get to know them in a little different way. And playing music in the house, good recordings of people singing is important. Melodies, lullabies, to have babies hear good music. There’s something about nice pleasant music being played around babies and kids that helps them get a sense of pitch and that’s a good way to get them started in music.”
“One of the things I’ve liked about being a teacher is the whole learning process,” he said. Learning new things is what he plans for his retirement. He likes to stay busy so he’ll continue on with his own music. And there will be more bear hunting. Up until know he’s hunted to put meat on the table, harvesting moose and caribou.
“It’s a little different shooting something with claws and teeth,” he said. “It’s a whole different experience.”