As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.
Bigger than life—those are the first words that come to mind when I think of “Doc” Huston. He was over six feet tall and slightly hump-shouldered, with thinning, wispy red hair. Some of his ways would have seemed brash and uncouth in a younger, less authoritative man. His smile was warm, his gestures often broad and dramatic, and his voice could boom with unapologetic passion.
He was given to definitive pronouncements, almost theatrical in their fervor, and when the situation demanded it, he had a temper to match his red hair. As he strode down the hall with his distinctive gait, everyone knew he was there, and when he arrived at class, he “made an entrance” without even trying. But he had a twinkle in his eye that seemed permanent, even in his wrath.
During my senior year in high school, I attended a Saturday music theory and composition class in the College-Conservatory of Music building at the University of Cincinnati—part of their preparatory school program. The teacher of that course introduced me to Doc Huston. Knowing I was about to enter the Conservatory with an interest in composition, he offered to let me to sit in on one of his composition classes during my freshman year. When school rules allowed me to switch my major to music composition at the beginning of my sophomore year, I officially studied composition with him for four more years, including one year of master’s study.
His composition classes were always held in his office studio. When he played one of his students’ compositions for that week, he would attack his studio grand piano with an energy totally unbridled by correctness. I remember once when a younger student tried to tell him he was playing his masterpiece incorrectly. Bad idea. His more experienced students knew that Doc was hearing far more than he was playing.
He always had a cup of coffee and a cigar in composition class. The coffee was often a victim of his passionate gestures and would end up inside the grand piano. A cursory mopping up was all the attention it got. Cigar ashes regularly fell on a student’s precious manuscript. Doc would brush them away without missing a beat.
How many times did I hear him rant about the five perfect compositions in music history! Bach’s B Minor Mass…Brahms’ Third Symphony…there was a Stravinsky in there, but I’m ashamed to admit I don’t remember the rest.
As a student, there were some younger profs I respected more when it came to knowing the technical details of music analysis. By comparison, Doc seemed more of a broad strokes guy. Sometimes I even wondered if Doc wasn’t using theatrical proclamations to cover his lack of detailed familiarity with the literature. Forgive me, Doc.
But 20+ years after leaving the Conservatory, when I turned from writing lyrics alone back to composing my own music, it was Doc’s oft-repeated broad strokes about music composition that proved unforgettable. Doc had majored on majors, not on minors, and I reaped the rewards of his wise investment. His basic principles lie behind every good hymn setting I’ve ever written. (I’ll take the blame for the rest.)
Externally, he was not a poster child for conservative evangelical Christianity. But he was outspokenly, unapologetically Christian in a place and time when profs more often sneered at God and openly mocked belief in Him. For a college kid struggling with his faith in a very atheistic environment, Doc was a light in a dark place, a homing beacon on the shore of a safe and welcoming harbor.