Since Donald Walter’s arrival at Northwest Middle School in 2007, enrollment in band and orchestra has jumped from about 200 students to more than 360.
Walter is co-director of orchestra and bands, and more than one-third of the school’s population participates in the classes.
“As a result of the huge enrollment increase, we are the only Guilford County middle school to qualify for two full-time band and orchestra teachers,” principal Rich Thomae said. “Mr. Walter’s outreach to the community, professionalism and enthusiasm for his subject matter have transformed music education at Northwest Middle and produced musicians who qualify for all-county, all-region and all-state honors on a regular basis.”
Allison Phillips joined the Northwest Middle faculty as a full-time co-director in the fall of 2012.
Walter recently was recognized by two groups for his work. He was named the North Carolina Music Educators Association’s 2015 Western Region Orchestra Director of the Year, and ArtsGreensboro named him the 2015 Arts Educator of the Year.
Walter was nominated for the ArtsGreensboro award by Thomae and for the NCMEA award by Sandra Rathbone, orchestra director at Northern Guilford Middle and High Schools.
“Donny’s encouragement and expertise are the reasons I feel he earned these awards,” Rathbone said. “Donny’s groups consistently make superior ratings in the Western Region North Carolina Orchestra Music Performance Adjudication competition.”
Thomae also is proud of Walter’s accomplishments.
“Students who never thought they would play an instrument have been inspired by his recruitment efforts and performance at both the feeder elementary schools and the middle school,” Thomae said. “His students have continued to be successful in the high school program and beyond.”
A Louisiana native, Walter grew up Fayetteville and began playing the violin in 1983.
“The previous year, my orchestra teacher, Susan Ellington, was the highlight of the elementary recruiting concert when she played ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ on her sparkling electric violin,” he recalled. “In seventh grade, she broke the news to me that I could spend the rest of my life being last-chair first violin, or I could switch to string bass and probably be first chair.”
Walter said he thought that sounded like a good deal, so he switched to string bass and never looked back.
Walter received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Music Education from UNC-Greensboro, and over the years, he has played in several community and professional groups, including the Fayetteville Symphony and Greensboro Philharmonia.
An orchestra teacher for 22 years, he added teaching band to his duties when he arrived at Northwest. (Before going to Northwest, he was director of orchestras at East Henderson High School and Flat Rock Middle School in East Flat Rock)
When teaching band, he frequently plays euphonium, trumpet and clarinet, and when teaching orchestra, he plays violin or cello.
“Although I play string bass professionally, I really enjoy playing all of the instruments for different reasons,” Walter said. “Having the ability to play various instruments helps me to be a better teacher.”
Walter said the key to increasing enrollment in band and orchestra is helping the students be successful.
“I figured that if I made sure the kids were successful at playing their instruments, the enrollment numbers would follow,” he said. “If I can structure music classes to maximize success, students can do amazing things.”
In addition to band and orchestra students scoring superior and excellent ratings at competitions, Northwest has had orchestras perform at the North Carolina Music Educators Professional Development Conferences in 2010 and 2014.
Walter also sponsors a jazz band club after school and plays the electric bass with students during basketball games.
“His love and enthusiasm for students make it difficult for even the most skeptical students not to love their daily music instruction,” Thomae said. “He has as much fun as his students, and it shows.”
In addition to teaching band and orchestra, Walter recently began playing cello in UNCG’s Sinfonia Orchestra and is pursuing research in music education.
“All people in all cultures embrace music as part of their societies,” Walter said. “Band and orchestra music programs at the middle school level are the foundation for band and orchestra programs at the high school level and beyond.”