Music director retiring after 40-plus years
After spending more than 40 years as a music educator devoted to building the Wilton Public School District’s music program, Middlebrook band director John Rhodes will be retiring on June 30.
Rhodes’s retirement comes two years after his announcement of it. He and fellow band director Frank “Chip” Gawle announced their retirements in 2016. Gawle retired at the end of that school year, but Rhodes said he decided to stay for two more years because it didn’t feel like “the right time.” Right now, he said, is “a better time.”
Rhodes first started working as Wilton High School’s band director in 1974. After seven years, he took a year off before serving as Darien High School’s music director for four years.
In 1986, Rhodes returned to Wilton as Middlebrook School’s band director, and his job eventually expanded to include directing at the high school.
“I was band director at Middlebrook for 60% of the day, then band director at the high school for about 40%,” said Rhodes, who also served as district instructional music leader alongside Gawle for “several years.”
Rhodes said knows how to play “a handful” of instruments, but his favorites are the trombone and piano — he’s played piano “from the time [he] was a youngster.”
In college, Rhodes started off as a chemistry major at Kent State University in Ohio, but “at some point” realized that wasn’t for him and decided to study music instead.
“I was very fortunate,” said Rhodes. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was getting a tremendous music education there, and I consider myself very fortunate to have had that example and that situation set for me.”
He went on to teach in his hometown of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and “had the good fortune to get a job where there were just outstanding teachers.”
“That’s where I learned everything about the marching band, and I worked with a great guy there for about seven years. We really had a nice program,” he said.
Rhodes said he taught there for seven years, then took a year off and did some dinner theater acting before coming to Connecticut in 1974.
During his time working in Wilton, Rhodes said, his proudest accomplishments have been the music programs and concepts he’s brought to the district, including operetta workshops, “Midwest-style” marching band and the annual Jazz Symposium at the high school.
Rhodes was instrumental in establishing Wilton High School’s Big Ten-style marching band in 1974. He told The Bulletin in 2012 he had been inspired by an impressive marching performance he saw in his hometown. Since then, Wilton’s marching band has been one of only a few of its kind in Connecticut.
“The Wilton High School marching band was asked to perform at several outside-of-Wilton events,” said Rhodes. “We were the most unique marching group, which made our performances appealing.”
In 1976, Rhodes started the high achool’s Jazz Symposium — “the first of its kind in Connecticut,” he said.
“It’s still going — this was the 42nd year,” said Rhodes. “We do that in the Little Theater, typically at the end of February. It involves a lot of different high schools, and we have professionals come and critique the way the students play.”
In the spring of 1976, Rhodes started a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta workshop.
“I had performed with an operetta company in Ohio at Blossom Music [Center], and I brought the operetta here and did it with Wilton High School students,” he said.
“We had a good choral department … so we were able to do it. We had the students; we were able to perform operettas, and we did a few of those. The students really got caught up in it. I really enjoyed that.”
Four years later, Rhodes — who was then working as Darien High School’s music director — teamed up with Wilton resident and vocal artist and teacher Phyllis Murray to found the Fairfield County Student Operetta Workshop. The goal of the program was to establish a summer operetta theater where students could develop and broaden their musical talents.
The Fairfield County Student Operetta Workshop was open to high school and college-age students from Wilton and other towns, said Rhodes, who directed several of the workshops.
“That lasted for about 19 years, until about the late-90s. … That was really a growth experience.”
Rhodes said music isn’t his only passion — his family is as well.
Rhodes met his wife of more than 40 years, Martha, while acting in a dinner theater production in New Haven. Coincidentally, the two were cast as husband and wife.
“We married in 1976 and moved to Danbury in 1977, where we’ve been for 41 years,” he said.
They have two children — a daughter who lives in Florida and a son who lives in Ridgefield — and three grandchildren.
“There’s a lot of music in my family, and I’m grateful for that,” said Rhodes, whose daughter knows how to play the violin and French horn and whose son plays the trumpet and guitar. “I’m hoping my grandchildren will want to do something with music.”
Rhodes said he has no particular plans for retirement, but he does hope to do some traveling with his wife. He said he may also learn to play the cello.
“I just think that’s such a great sound; it’s capable of so many different kinds of music,” said Rhodes. “I’ve always wanted to do that — maybe I’ll do that.”
Rhodes said the students are what he will miss most about working in Wilton. “I love working with them — teaching them about music and the theory of it,” he said.
Rhodes said he will also miss the “tremendously supportive” staff and community. “They are very strong supporters of music education,” he said. “They see the value of it.”
A number of Wilton residents attended the Board of Education’s April 5 meeting to ask the board to break policy and rename the Wilton High School Little Theater after Rhodes, and also hang a plaque outside the theater in his honor.
When asked about his thoughts and feelings on that, Rhodes said he is “overwhelmed to be thought of that way,” but “there are several deserving people — teachers and admin — that should share that honor.”
Rhodes mentioned several people, music teachers and administrators, who he feels are “deserving,” and with whom he is “very proud to have been associated.”
“A plaque could go up to these people mentioned, including me,” he said, “and I would be happy to be part of the process of helping determine who should be recognized in all that.”
Residents at the April school board meeting also expressed their gratitude, appreciation and respect for Rhodes and his contributions to the school district’s music program.
Rhodes said he is “honored to have had the opportunity” to make an impact on the lives of so many Wilton community members.
“I’m grateful to have had such great mentors [and] people to mentor, and to have been able to have this much of an impact on [the district’s] music program,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
Asked what advice he would give his Middlebrook band director successor, Rhodes said, “Identify your strength and make sure to pass that along to the students. Find out everything you can from the veteran teachers — pick everyone’s brain. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Be a forward-thinker. Most of all, let students know how you love what you’re doing.”