SIBLEY, Iowa - Since his arrival at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School in the fall of 2000, hundreds of students have passed through the doors of Peter Carlson’s band room.

Today, a generous number of trophies won by Carlson-directed students can be seen in the room. Carlson, too, recently received a special honor of his own, as he represented the state of Iowa in SBO (School Band & Orchestra) Magazine’s annual “50 Directors Who Make a Difference” edition. Those sorts of accolades, though, while nice, aren’t particular important to the veteran teacher.  

“I guess I just like to see people and have another chance to help them get better,” said Carlson of what continues to inspire him in his career. “Every day is another chance to rehearse the students and work on things - group things, contests coming up or anything else. It’s just a chance to play music and make it better.”

Road to Sibley

Carlson grew up in the small South Dakota community of Centerville and graduated from high school there. He recalls his enthusiasm for music being sparked at an early age.

“My interest in music probably started way back when I started taking piano lessons,” he recalled. “Actually, it was before I got to take piano lessons. I wanted to have piano lessons in kindergarten, but my parents said ‘no, you need to wait.’”

Piano lessons finally commenced in second grade. By fifth grade, he was playing in school band, which meant by the time Carlson got to his senior year, he was beginning his eighth year in band as part of the percussion section. Life as a high-school student, he added, was plenty busy.

“I was really doing a lot of school things and auditioning for a lot of groups,” he said. “I played for church on Sundays - I was playing the pipe organ, and had one Sunday a month in church on that. I had a job, I was in sports.

“I learned how to be as busy as I am right now,”’ Carlson continued. “It’s been that way for me since about as far as I can remember.”

After high school graduation, Carlson attended the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. He knew right away he was interested in a music-oriented vocation, but his academic focus quickly changed.

“I was in music performance for about a semester and then decided to try the education route,” he said. “I wasn’t planning to become a teacher; I was planning to become a performer. But some of my college friends influenced me - they were in the education program and were older, and they’d had some experience I hadn’t yet.”

Carlson went on to student-teach in Beresford, S.D., and - following graduation in December 1996 - soon landed a job as grade 7-12 band director at Laurens-Marathon Community Schools in Iowa. He began work there in the fall of 1997.

A few years later, intrigued by an opportunity to work in a larger school district, he applied for the grade 9-12 band instructor position at Sibley-Ocheyedan.

“I was kind of familiar with the program up here and knew that there were some more teaching opportunities here that I didn’t have where I was teaching before,” Carlson explained. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy where I was.”

He left Laurens-Marathon after the end of the 1999-2000 school year, and has been at S-O ever since.

‘Keep it balanced’

Since Carlson’s arrival in Sibley, the school’s enrollment - and subsequent size of its band program - has fluctuated somewhat. He said the number of students in the district took a dip “about eight years ago,” but is now on the rise, and band is growing, too.

“For the size of our school, we’ve always had plenty of kids,” Carlson said.

The key to maintaining both interest and success in band, he said, is working equally and diligently with all students. S-O’s band program has marching band, concert band, jazz band and pep band.

“I've tried to keep it balanced between all the different groups and don't want one group to be better than another,” he explained. “I’ve wanted every single ensemble we’ve had to be top-notch. That doesn’t mean we've always been top-notch, but I’ve expected every group to do well.

“Trophies are not really important to me, but we’ve had many students who have earned high places with their groups or many division ratings from state festivals.”

That sort of success was a likely contributor to Carlson’s inclusion in the SBO Magazine’s “50 Directors Who Make a Difference” edition. The magazine receives nominations from individuals across the United States, and ultimately chooses one director from each of the 50 states to feature in the publication’s annual December edition. Carlson received a certificate commemorating the honor, and had his biography and picture included in the magazine.

Carlson is a member of the Iowa Bandmasters Association, but is quick to point out that most of his efforts revolve around bettering his students. Marching band, he said, participates in numerous field programs, while jazz band usually travels to around five competitions throughout its season. The concert band typically performs during three high school concerts - one near Christmas, and others in the winter and spring - and the pep band plays at some school athletic events.

In order to keep students both learning and interested, Carlson likes to keep the groups’ repertoires as fresh as possible.

“I like to pick a variety of things, and no one year is going to be the same as the next,” he stated. “Our concerts that we have always had included different pieces over the years and I always like to try something very different once in a while, and different styles of music. I’ll listen to things, dig through files, look up things on the internet - I’m always looking for different music.”

A rewarding career

Carlson takes pride in having many students who both enjoyed their experiences in S-O band and continue to be involved with music today.

“I have students that I see that are still around here and they talk about all the good times they had in high school band,” he said. “I have students that have gone on to play either in professional orchestras, or are teaching at the college level, or are band directors themselves. ... That’s really rewarding.”

Carlson, his wife and two children reside in nearby Ashton, Iowa. His daughter is a college freshman; his son is an S-O sophomore.

“My daughter plays in some of the bands at Northwestern (in Orange City Iowa), though she's not a music major,” he noted. “My son is in a lot of the music things here.”

In addition to his busy duties as band director, Carlson has been the head boys track and field coach at S-O for the past 16 years - something “that keeps me very busy, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.” In the infrequent spare time he does have, he says he’s up for just about anything.

“I like to sit and rest, but I’d like to go a movie, would go to a concert, would go watch a basketball game. ... I just like to do all kinds of stuff. There’s nothing that I think, ‘Wow, that would be terrible.’ I just find a lot of different things interesting.”

And even after 18 years, work at S-O remains interesting, too, and highly enjoyable.

“I lead a pretty boring life,” Carlson said with a laugh. “But I think I've gotten to do some pretty exciting things and work with some pretty exciting people.”