Peter Witherly has been heavily involved in the music community in Prince Rupert since the 1970s. Witherly and Rolling Tones members Gordon Bruce

Heart of our city: Prince Rupert’s man behind the music

If you enjoy taking in live music in Prince Rupert, you likely have Peter Witherly to thank.

If you enjoy taking in live music in Prince Rupert, you likely have Peter Witherly to thank.

Peter has been an integral part of the music community in Prince Rupert since his arrival to the North Coast in 1971. He spent more than 30 years teaching Prince Rupert students in band, and has formed, led or contributed to so many different musical groups and productions that they can’t easily be listed by name.

Peter’s love for music began when he started playing the trumpet at a very young age. After his family moved from his birthplace of Vancouver to Regina, Saskatchewan, his pastime evolved into a full-out passion for music.

“In Regina at the time there were no school bands,” explained Peter, who instead got his trumpet-fix by joining the Regina Lions Junior Band.

Joining the program when he was either six or seven years old, Peter was part of the group for the next five years or so until his family moved to Edmonton.

“Before I left Regina when I was a little kid I already had done a solo with the band,” he said.

Over the next few years in Edmonton, Peter became involved with a number of ensembles, including the University of Alberta symphony, when he was in Grade 11.

“It was nice because I got to meet all of the music students. So then a couple years later when I actually graduate from high school and went to university, I was already involved in the orchestra,” he said.

When he started his post-secondary education, Peter was unsure of what he wanted to get into.

“What I really enjoyed my first year was being involved in music. So the second year I went directly into music,” he recalled.

Eventually Peter would receive a Master’s degree in music education and, after initially denying a job offer in Prince Rupert, he would eventually take on role as the district’s lone band instructor.

“It was the usual thing, I thought I’d probably stay for five years and work on developing the band program, but I really liked Prince Rupert so I stayed,” he said.

While the program had already been started in Prince Rupert, it wasn’t running steadily. In the years to follow, Peter would be a major force behind its successful expansion.

Peter travelled to elementary schools around the district to teach for some time, while the older students all practiced in the music room at Booth Memorial.

When Booth closed, band students were thrown into an unfortunate situation for a few years as the Prince Rupert Secondary School (PRSS) band room didn’t exist yet.

“I was teaching band at Prince Rupert Secondary School in the library at one time and then over at the civic centre teaching on the stage of the auditorium,” recalled Peter.

“While we were rehearsing, sometimes they were cooking stuff in the canteen and there would be all these smells coming through. One day a week they were running seniors’ bingo right below us on the floor, with just a curtain separating us.”

But finally the creation of the PRSS band room came about, with Peter having the opportunity to work with architects before it was constructed, allowing for a perfect fit for students.

Much later, Peter would be part of the creation of the music studio at Charles Hays Secondary. But for many years all high school students had to use was PRSS’ band room.

Peter’s involvement with music in Prince Rupert has extended far beyond schools. Shortly after moving to the North Coast, Peter re-initiated a community band. Although there is a long history of community bands in Prince Rupert, there wasn’t an existing group in place when he arrived.

Peter conducted the group for approximately 20 years before changes to the schools’ schedule prevented practices from taking place in the 1990s.

Years later, Prince Rupert musician John Turner resurrected the community band, with Peter becoming the conductor once again after his retirement in the mid-2000s.

In the ’80s, Peter also became director of the Prince Rupert Rotary Community Choir, a role he still holds today.

Along with the bounty of performances put on by these groups and his band students, Peter has taken the stage with a variety of musical acts with an diversity of genres over the years for performances and fundraising concerts. This has included big band, male quartets, Dixieland, R & B, jazz, and more.

Since retiring 10 years ago, Peter has maintained an active involvement in the music community, still being part of the Muskeg Swing Band, the Rolling Tones, an Oompah band and providing vocal lessons to Prince Rupert Dance Academy students.

Additionally, musicals have taken a lot of Peter’s free time: Peter was in charge of the music in all high school musicals since they became an annual occurrence in the mid-’80s. He also spent time to working on Prince Rupert community musicals over the years, most recently being musical director of Prince Rupert’s production of Les Misérables.

The most challenging, and most rewarding musical production Peter contributed to was 2010’s The Dream Lives On. Telling the story of Prince Rupert’s history, the idea for The Dream Lives On was developed by Peter and Lester Centre of the Arts general manager Crystal Lorette to coincide with the City of Prince Rupert’s 100th birthday.

Peter wrote all of the production’s music and lyrics, with Chris Armstrong and Rudy Kelly helping to develop the storyline.

“It was a huge amount of work, and a lot of late nights,” he said, calling it a highlight of his life.

Another contribution Peter made was in the creation of CHSS’ new music studio. His vision encouraged the creation of the Prince Rupert and District Music Society and the idea of having a community music studio, as it was hard for groups to get time in the facility at what is now the middle school.

The school district approached the society about partnering to create a music studio together that could be used by everyone, with fundraising starting soon thereafter.

The Prince Rupert and District Music Society held various fundraising events, with corporations donating money to help with the creation, along with a contribution from the school board.

Right before the new space opened in May, Peter found out it would be called the Peter Witherly Community Music Studio. While he was wary about the decision, Peter was also honoured.

Peter is keeping busy with performances this fall, including with the Oompah Band during Oktoberfest 2014 this weekend, along with a performance of excerpts from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah in the works for this fall.