Music rules in Morton

Molding musicians, shaping people, racking up state titles (16 in a row!)

By Lisa Coon
Photos by Mike Bailey
Brass section of the Morton marching band

Marching band members playing xylophones

Pride in performance.

Those are words to live by for music students in Morton Community Unit School District 709. 

It’s displayed proudly on a banner hanging in the Morton High School band room. It’s on the side of the equipment trailer. It’s a motto instilled in the kids early in their school career. 

“Pride in performance. It starts in the first week or so of band,” said Katrina Fitzpatrick, who is beginning her 20th year as band director at Morton Junior High. “We take pride in setting up the classroom – the stands are in the proper place, cases are placed just so, this how we hold our instruments when playing and when we’re not playing.  

“We’re treating the room, others and the instruments with respect and approaching the process with a great deal of pride,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Tim Gray, in his third year as director of the high school’s music department, said “pride in performance is in everything we preach. It’s not just how you perform on the field, it’s how you conduct yourself at the hotel or on a charter bus or in the mall when people interact with us. It’s about taking pride in being from this community.” 

“Over time, I finally figured out what it means to me. Pride in performance is not just what we do on the field or even in the program – it’s how we represent ourselves in everything we do,” said Thomas Vastine, a 2021 MHS graduate now in his sophomore year at Iowa State University majoring in animal science with a minor in music. “The Morton marching band has taught me to have pride in my life, regardless of what I am doing. It has taught me to never take anything for granted, even if it is easily attainable.” 

This summer, he is marching with the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps, a world-class competitive junior drum and bugle corps. The group is touring 13 states and will culminate its season by competing in the World Championships at Lucas Memorial Stadium in Indianapolis on Aug. 8-9. 

Giving credit where credit is due

Gray came to the district in 2019, inheriting a program that had seen consistent success since 2005. Prior to coming to Morton, he was self-employed writing and designing shows for high school and college bands and serving as a national judge. He credits Fitzpatrick at the junior high for much of the program’s success. 

“She’s an excellent music educator, and one of the biggest reasons for the success of the high school program is her direction and dedication at that younger level,” Gray said. “Morton is unique as we help teach beginners starting in the sixth grade. We literally watch kids grow up from age 12 to 18.” 

Fitzpatrick, who also has served as the woodwind instructor for the MHS  marching band since 1999, is a Morton marching band product herself, graduating in 1997. She played flute her freshman and sophomore years, then saxophone her last two. She also was in the jazz band and participated in plays and musicals. 

“As I was going through the program, it was starting to see success,” she said.  

In 1994, for the first time, the band reached the finals in the Illinois State Marching Band Championships, the state’s premiere invitational event, involving nearly four dozen schools at Illinois State University.  

“We finished seventh … and we were just ecstatic because we hadn’t reached that success before,” she said. 

Gray said parental and town support also are very important to the success of the band. “Community Night” every fall routinely draws thousands of fans. Meanwhile, the Band Boosters raise about $200,000 annually, which helps pay for designers and travel costs. 

Wendy Vastine, a Morton elementary teacher and mother of two former band members, served as head chaperone for two years.  

“The program is really important to the community and the school district. I feel our board of education and leaders in our school make our band a priority,” she said. “We have band staff that are Morton grads and have gone through the program itself, so it’s meaningful to them.”  

Young man holding a violin.
Adam Kujawa

A program of success

Nearly 20 percent of Morton High’s 930 students are enrolled in music. The music department is made up of the choirs, orchestra and bands. The goal is to develop a lifelong love of music and to expand the musical achievement of students, some of whom go on to make it a career. For example, Adam Kujawa, MHS Class of 2015, landed a role playing the violin – at age 24 — in the touring production of the Broadway play, Anastasia. 

Performance opportunities include wind ensemble, symphonic winds, concert band, jazz ensemble, marching band, brass ensemble, pep band and color guard. Emphasis is on individual student growth. Each year, multiple band members are selected for the Illinois Music Education Association District Honor Band and Orchestra, as well as for all-state bands, orchestras and honor ensembles. Approximately 160 of the 180 students in the Morton music program are in marching band and color guard. 

The band has won the Illinois State Class 2A championship 16 years in a row. It has been a finalist at numerous Bands of America regionals and super regionals, and has advanced to the Bands of America Grand Championship semifinals multiple times, placing fourth in the nation in its class in 2018.   

In 2012, the band won the Bands of America St. Louis Super Regional Class AA Championship. The group has won five Illinois Governor’s Trophy awards and performed in the 56th Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. In 2017, the band was awarded the Sudler Shield by the John Philip Sousa Foundation, the highest international award for a marching band. 

The wind ensemble, meanwhile, has performed repeatedly at the prestigious Illinois SuperState Concert Band Festival at the University of Illinois and at the Illinois Music Education Conference.   

MHS also has been recognized as a GRAMMY Signature School semifinalist, a program that recognizes U.S. public high schools that go above and beyond in music education. In addition, Morton received the NAMM Foundation Best Community for Music Education in 2017 and 2018 and is a 2016 NAMM Foundation SupportMusic Merit Award recipient. NAMM recognizes the efforts of teachers, administrators, parents, students and community leaders to support music as part of a well-rounded education.  

Ready for a new season

Coming off the COVID-19 shutdown when performances weren’t allowed, the marching band participated in seven competitions during 2021. 

“Part of that was on purpose. Half of the marching band had never competed or worn a uniform coming out of COVID,” Gray said. “We were fortunate, as we were able to maintain our participation levels through COVID and remote offerings. In the state of Illinois, many programs lost up to 40% of their membership.” 

This coming school year, the band will compete in five contests, as well as host a competition in which it will perform an exhibition. 

This fall, the band’s program is “What’s the Matter,” which incorporates science and the different stages of matter – solid, liquid, gas and plasma. Different music pieces will be played during each stage and seven aluminum spheres imitating atoms and nuclei will move around during the show. 

“Years ago, bands were all acoustic and would come out and play three tunes with no connection to the other,” Gray said. “Today, bands have soundscapes with microphones and synthesizers for sound effects, and the music all relates. The music kid in me is really excited about this year’s program.”

Lisa Coon
Lisa Coon is a Peoria native who had a long career in the newspaper industry before moving into marketing and communications.