Cowboy Solution Featured in the Houston Chronicle

Conroe's cowboy conductor

Don Hutson believes there are similarities in working with horses and musicians

By TARA DOOLEY Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle

Dec. 16, 2010, 4:29PM

Training horses and conducting an orchestra have more in common than one might think.

At least that's how Conroe Symphony Orchestra's "cowboy conductor," Don Hutson, sees it.

"Working with horses and working with people and working with symphonies, there is no difference," he said. "You must build a foundation of trust."

Since 2005, when he took podium as music director of the volunteer orchestra, Hutson has been putting his horse wisdom to work in his musical endeavors. In a city that supports its local theaters and galleries but comes out in full force for the county fair and rodeo, the cowboy conductor resonates with his audience, said Aline Arnold, orchestra's chairman of the board of directors and executive director.

"He has a personality that really fits well with this cowboy mentality," Arnold said.

The combination of music and horses has been a part of Hutson's 61 years of life. Or most of them.

The horses were around for work and transportation on the small family farm where he grew up in Lufkin. As a teen, he began learning to train them.

The music in Hutson's life was inspired by his involvement in the local Baptist church his family attended. In college, Hutson planned to pursue church music as a career, but he shifted focus as he learned more classical repertoire.

"It was just a different level of music," he said. "I got turned on to music from an art standpoint."

Humbling experience

Hutson earned a master's degree at Stephen F. Austin State University and returned to Lufkin to teach music at a local high school. Eventually, he decided to try a different part of the country and headed to Oklahoma for a doctorate in conducting.

After teaching conducting at the college level for about 10 years, Hutson decided that he had had enough of academic politics and left behind education for the world of business.

He moved to Longview and, with three partners, started a company that manufactured baseball caps. In about 16 years, he built it into an enterprise with about 300 employees that made 3,000 caps a day.

"It was a little bit different from music," he joked.

During that time, though, parts of his life began to unravel.

It started with the death of his 12-year-old son, Cody, who had suffered with asthma.

"I was never quite the same after that," he said.

After his son's death, his marriage fell apart. Later, he sold his company to a Fort Worth business that went under, sinking Hutson's financial future, too.

"I had lost my family. I had lost everything. So I started my life over at 52-years-old with nothing," he said.

Hutson moved to Montgomery County, where he had some family and friends. He joined a crew building fences on George P. Mitchell's ranch.

"It was a very humbling experience," he said. "It was something I felt I needed to do to find out who I was."

As he settled into Montgomery County, music and horses returned to the forefront of his life.

Working in the area, Hutson rediscovered horse training. But this time, instead focusing on telling the horses what to do, he tried listening to the horses.

"The horses were the teachers," he said. "They were great evaluators."

What he learned is that he could get a lot better response if he focused on earning the horses' trust every day, being consistent in his efforts and praising their accomplishments.

As he worked with the horses, he realized that the principles he learned from them could be applied to business and teaching. The horses offered him the "Cowboy Solution."

He started doing seminars in 2002 to show teachers and business managers how to lead, communicate and build trust by working with the horses.

"It was a struggle to get here, but in the struggle there is dignity and a tolerable destiny," he said.

Down-home style

In about 2005, Hutson was appointed music director and conductor of the Conroe Symphony Orchestra after its former conductor, Robert Zwick, retired and moved out of the area. Arnold learned about Hutson's skills and decided that a "cowboy conductor" would work well for the orchestra — and Conroe.

"He has been a university professor, and he has a degree in conducting, but I think he's able to communicate with the audience," Arnold said. "He's real down home."

Hutson's down-home style was on display at the podium earlier this month at the Ark Church in Conroe for the orchestra's annual Christmas concert. After a swift jaunt onto the stage accompanied by little fanfare, Hutson whipped the orchestra into a rousing Star-Spangled Banner. The audience stood and sang along, some with hands over their hearts.

Then it was on to a short work by the composer Bizet.

"Actually, they could do all of that without me, but it was just so much fun I couldn't keep away," Hutson joked as he turned to address the crowd after the piece. The audience chuckled in response.

These days the Conroe Symphony Orchestra attracts a fair crowd to its concerts. The Christmas show drew more than 1,000. Some arrived in evening wear, others in holiday sweaters with reindeer and Christmas trees. There were generations of families with members from toddlers to grandparents.

'Something for everybody'

The orchestra was started in 1997 with two main goals, said co-founder and concertmaster Mary Curtis Taylor. The simple one was to provide an opportunity for musicians to get together and play.

The philosophical goal of the group was encapsulated on a sticker Taylor plastered on the bumper of her Lincoln: "Every great city has a symphony."

"People, when they are moving to an area, want to know what's going on: What can you provide? What do you have?" Taylor said. "And every great city . . . "

Well, you know.

Since the symphony started, Conroe has grown as Houston's suburbs have inched north. Now the population is estimated to be more than 56,000 - up considerably from the 36,000 figure of the 2000 Census.

George Waggoner, Conroe-area president of the First National Bank Texas and a member of the symphony's board of directors, now considers the city "a mid-sized community with a small-town feel in a great area." He also thinks the city does a pretty good job of having a local arts scene with theater, galleries and the Conroe Symphony Orchestra.

"I think that is one of the things that is nice about the symphony. It kind of makes us a big city," he said.

The members of the symphony are all volunteers. Some, like Taylor, have worked as professional musicians in orchestras around the country. Others are local music teachers and educators. At least one is a building contractor who has been helpful with repairs to the symphony's new home base near downtown Conroe, said Arnold, who works as a volunteer for the orchestra.

The musicians come from as near as Conroe and as far as Katy and Huntsville, she said.

"It is not about playing perfectly, it is about playing musically and conveying emotion," Hutson said. "I believe they create art in the truest sense of the word."

The Conroe Symphony Orchestra's audience has grown to more than 1,000 for each concert since the group began playing at the Ark Church, Arnold said.

The symphony also sponsors educational programs for local school students including a popular essay-writing contest. In January, the orchestra will add a second youth orchestra, one for intermediate and one for advanced players from area schools, Arnold said. Sunday it begins a free afternoon salon series aimed at drawing seniors. The orchestra also has a symphony league of fundraising and volunteers.

"There really is something for everybody," Arnold said.

Don Hutson
(281) 732-4963
Author: Don Hutson
Phone: (281) 732-4963
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