The Power of Influence: Dr. Thomas Scott Huston

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.


  1. A G Dotson says:

    I remember Dr Houston from 1965 when he came to our High School in Virginia to guest teach at a several weeks long Symposium and Practicum. A big red headed burly man to me with a passion for music who I believe liked the Avant Garde
    I do know I personally benefited from his teaching and I still remember him with much respect.
    That was the same year Star Trek debued so I tie those memories together
    I would love to know more about his life and work

    • doug turpin says:

      Hello AG

      I was the one that brought doc to norton. I was one of his many students at CCM. We remained good friends until his death.

      I hope you are well and life is good to you. You were the winner of the JP award, as I recall.

  2. Thanks for your post. Dr. Huston was a tremendous influence on my life as a musician and I will never forget what he did for me. When I was finishing his Master’s course on Analytic Techniques, he forced me to place a Dr. in front of my name on an envelope. He told me at that time it would one day come true. He was right. His encouragement and musical wisdom made a profound difference in my life.

  3. Doc believed in me when others did not. His support had and still keeps me in good stead through many trials. He shared his passion with us all.

  4. Scott Huston says:

    Dr. Huston was my grandfather. I always remember him with a cigar sitting next to his piano. What a legacy he left behind. I’m truly blessed to have known him for a short time.

  5. Dan A Pratte says:

    I grew up in his neighborhood in the 1960s. He was our Boy Scout Leader at Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. I knew his son Scotty who was my age, and less so the rest of his family. His 2 sons were (are?) both deaf. An interesting irony for a man who was so sonic. But the Scotty I knew was a really happy, great kid! RIP Leader Huston.

  6. Dan A Pratte says:

    I grew up in his neighborhood in the 1960s. He was our Boy Scout Leader at Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. I knew his son Scotty who was my age, and less so the rest of his family. His 2 sons were (are?) both deaf. An interesting irony for a man who was so sonic. But the Scotty I knew was a really happy, great kid! RIP Leader Huston.

  7. Daniel Crozier says:

    Dr. Huston taught my own undergraduate composition teacher, Dr. Eliot Newsome, in his studies at CCM. From the way people describe Dr. Huston’s manner, Dr. Newsome would appear to have absorbed a good deal of his own teaching style from his mentor. Dr. Newsome spoke frequently of Dr. Huston’s discriminating ear and his ability to “spot the problem very quickly” in any student composition. I really regret never having the opportunity to meet or study with Dr. Huston. It is unfortunate that so little of his music seems to be available. I have seen reference to a large number of pieces, including at least one opera, but so far have only been able to find one recording, of a very fine “Toccata for Piano and Orchestra,” dating from 1952. There is also a “Suite for Solo Timpani” published by Schirmer. Interestingly, Dr. Newsome mentioned that his teacher also wrote some music for the original Star Trek series under a pseudonym. It would be great learn more about him and hear more of his music.

  8. David McClanahan says:

    Scott Huston Toccata for Piano and Orchestra

  9. David McClanahan says:

    I studied composition, counterpoint and music history with Dr. Huston. Composition for 4-5 years my first two undergraduate years (then I studied with Paul M. Palombo), then I finished my last two years (D.M.A.) with Huston. Huston was “bigger than life”. I once corrected his playing of my 2nd symphony in composition class .. and the room became totally silent (other students knew what was coming), Huston put his cigar (unlit) into his mouth, looked down at his feet and then slowly looked over to me … eye to eye he says .. “if you can do it better you play it” .
    Stunned I said .. “no , no, you do much better than I could” … he chewed on his cigar, and smiled and said, “Let’s see what’s on the next page” and went back to playing.

  10. So happy to have stumbled on to your wonderfully colorful AND accurate reminiscence of Doc. I studied composition with him from 1969-1974, and sang in his church choir for several years,as well. He was certainly a “bigger than life” guy and I expect most of his former students remember Doc as fondly as you and I.

    Thanks for your post.

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