Tom Laney, Jr. (1969) Percussion
Ed. Note: 1969 was New Trier West High School’s first
full four-year graduating class.
When I entered NTW as a freshman, I was a trumpet player in the band. I clearly remember looking at the drummers in the back and realizing that they were having more fun than the rest of us! So, I switched to drums at the beginning of sophomore year, starting lessons with Jake Jerger. He was a remarkable teacher, and I had a natural aptitude for drums, so by the beginning of second semester, I joined the Jazz Band and Symphonic Band. Before the end of sophomore year, I was selected to play pit drums for the annual musical. I believe that year’s musical was “Wonderful Town.” From that point on, I played drums for every musical and every year’s “Potpourri” student talent showcase.
My musical skills grew tremendously thanks to Roger, the Jazz Band, and two years of Music Theory with Denis Moreen. I got to the point where I could sightread virtually any rhythm put in front of me. I also received great instruction each summer from the amazing Alan Dawson, Dave Brubeck’s former drummer (after Joe Morello), at the National Stage Band Camps. Roger formed a small (about 8 piece?) jazz combo and we got special instruction in improvisation from Jamey Aebersold at those summer camps.
It was at the last of those jazz camps, held at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois after my senior year, where I met Roger Schueler, director of MU’s jazz and concert bands. He was impressed with my playing and urged me to audition when the school year began. I did so and played in MU’s #2 Jazz Band. Although I enrolled as a Psychology major, I also took percussion lessons from Wallace Barnett and was urged to take Advanced Honors Music Theory when the teacher saw two years of high school theory on my transcript.
By sophomore year, I had decided to change my major to Percussion. I played in the Orchestra, Symphonic Band, Marching Band, Percussion Ensemble, and Jazz Band. Again, I played pit drums for every musical that the large Theater department put on.
But something more was in my blood. I inherited my grandfather’s rich bass singing voice. So, I auditioned for the bass solos in Handel’s Messiah, amazing my friends who were in Choir. I started voice lessons and joined the famous Millikin Choir, singing many solos over my remaining years and also serving as narrator for several pieces. By my second senior year, I was the student Assistant Director. I also sang bass roles in several operas, including The Marriage of Figaro, Gianni Schicchi, Street Scene, Calvary (Pasatieri), Beauty and the Beast (Giannini), and The Barber of Seville. I won the Phi Mu Alpha Opera Award for outstanding performance as Don Bartolo in that last opera.
I was still playing drums, and began playing for an Equity theater in Sullivan, Illinois which featured famous lead actors such as Alan Ladd (in Blossom Time) and Stubby Kaye (in Fiddler on the Roof).
I also played for about ten years with the Decatur Municipal Band. We did two concerts a week each summer, initially rotating our performances around the city’s many beautiful parks. Eventually, the city built us a nice bandshell and paved pavilion for audience seating in Central Park downtown. I was also a frequent vocal soloist with the band, usually singing highlights from Broadway musicals.
I married my wife Judy just after the beginning of my fifth year of college, on September 22, 1973. A recent graduate of Stephen Decatur High School, she was already a talented pianist and organist.
I graduated from Millikin in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts in Music. Having studied choral conducting with Richard Hoffland, I began a 30-year career in church music. I served nine different churches in several different Christian denominations over that 30-year span. But I quickly found out that most church musicians need supplementary incomes.
For several years I supplemented my income by selling cameras at several local stores. I even did a brief stint as a uniformed security officer in a state mental health institution. But eventually, my pastor recommended that I pursue a master’s degree in Church Music to help me get one of the larger full-time church jobs.
We moved to Nashville in 1980, where I attended Scarritt College, a small but prestigious Methodist graduate school (which has since been closed by the United Methodist Church so they could repurpose the beautiful campus). While in Nashville, I served as Assistant Conductor of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, did some studio work, and hosted the first two Scarritt College Christmas Madrigal Dinners as King Henry VIII. I received my Master of Church Music degree with Choral Conducting emphasis in May 1982.
I was immediately hired as Director of Music, Education, and Youth at a church in a small West Texas town. After just a year there, we moved to Midland, Texas, the center of the West Texas oil industry. I continued to work as a church music director, but many new opportunities opened up for me as a performer.
In the 38 years since, I played for 15 years each as a section percussionist and timpanist with two different Symphony orchestras and a college/community band. I also played drums for 15 years with the Odessa College Jazz Band. I did a lot of combo work with the Bernie Rose Trio, the Rob Hunt Trio, and a quartet called Jive Train. Since Midland is President George W. Bush’s hometown, there was a big outdoor sendoff rally in downtown Midland in January 2000. Jive Train was invited to play. It was “Chicago cold” that day, and by the time we started to play, my fingers were numb! Somehow, we got through it, and it was a memorable event. Without the start I got at New Trier West, I probably would not have experienced that day.
Also, during these past 38 years, I played for many performances of great Broadway musicals at three local theaters… in fact, I have played for dozens of shows over the past 50 years. I also had the opportunity to direct a men’s Barbershop chorus and serve as Assistant Conductor of the Midland-Odessa Symphony Chorale for four years. I was an Adjunct Instructor in Music and Assistant Conductor of the choral groups at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa, Midland’s sister city. I also wrote, directed, and hosted Christmas Madrigal Dinners at the University, The Globe of the Great Southwest (a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe), and two local churches. I also went back to college to get my teaching certificate, and for ten years I taught English, Speech, Drama, and Choir in a public high school.
Judy and I have two children: Catherine, 36, teaches Radiologic Tech at a large junior college in the Houston area, and Tom III, 30, is part of the two-man administrative team that runs Lubbock Moonlight Musicals, a theater organization that performs at a large outdoor amphitheater. They each are married, and each couple has given me two precious grandsons, all between the ages of two and six. I homeschooled both of my children and formed the Permian Basin Children’s Choir to give homeschooled kids an experience in the Arts.
I’m turning 70 next month (October 5, 2021) and am mostly retired due to disability stemming from 30 years of Type 2 Diabetes. Despite being legally blind and confined mostly to a wheelchair due to a balance disorder caused by neuropathy, I’ve still enjoyed playing percussion in my church’s large orchestra. I can still play my drums from the wheelchair, too, so it’s all good. I certainly miss my days with Roger and all you rowdy bunch of screamers and honkers in the NTW Jazz Band.