SMUS Teacher Feature: Mr. Peter Butterfield

Mr. Peter Butterfield has been a music teacher – in the traditional sense – since 2001. But nearly three decades of experience as a working singer and conductor prior to that helped prepare him for the classroom role.

He was born in Montreal and (with his father in the Royal Canadian Navy) moved around as a child with stints in Halifax and Europe before settling in Victoria. After graduating high school, he attended UVic and later graduated with a degree in Economics (with some music as well) from McGill. While he had interest in law and developmental economics (working at solving the issues developing countries face), his skills as a singer brought him job opportunities. He started his professional singing career in Canada (with the Montreal Symphony in 1982), before moving across the Atlantic and spending years working and living in England, France, Germany and Italy. He and his family – wife, Sarah; daughter, Rosanna; son, Felix – moved to Canada in 2001, when Peter began conducting and teaching in Vancouver. They came to Vancouver Island in 2009, when Peter began teaching at SMUS.

Peter currently teaches choir at the Senior School and he is also a Bolton houseparent. Outside of SMUS, Peter is the music director of the Victoria Philharmonic Choir.

Let’s get to know Mr. Butterfield better:

What was your favourite subject in school?
English and History. I loved courses with words; where you talk to people and think about people.

What was your first job?
I was a pooper scooper behind the Tally-Ho horse carriages downtown. I had just got my driver’s license at 16, and within a month I had this job where they gave me a car to drive around with a shovel and a box mounted on the back, and I would just drive around the carriage route and pick up the poop on the road. It was an excellent gig!

What do you do on a day off?
I spend it outdoors because that’s what I get least of in my work. Whether it’s gardening, sailing, hiking, biking, skiing – I enjoy all of these, but I’m not really passionate about any of them. I’m just passionate about being outdoors.

Where do you most want to travel, but have never been?
The South Pacific islands. I have an imaginative attachment to that area through the reading of Captain James Cook’s journals; all that talk of fruit and scenery!

What is one goal you want to achieve in your lifetime?
To try to reduce the amount of stress within my professional life to zero.

What did you do after high school?
I went on a drive from Vancouver to Newfoundland with a friend. We worked for a company and we took pictures of all their mining and oil sites. It included mines of all kinds, and we saw so much of Canada in the 50 or so days it took. It was memorable for a lot of reasons, such as going down one of Canada’s deepest gold mines, but also because my friend fell asleep at the wheel and drove us off the road into the St. John River near Fredericton, at 70 miles per hour. We sunk to the riverbed before moving quickly to get back to the surface. We both survived, and we continued on to Newfoundland, in a different car.

Why did you want to be a teacher?
I realize I have felt like a teacher for a lot of my life. My dad was a sea captain, my mum was a teacher, and so there was always a certain amount of encouraging instruction, and articulation of hopes and ideas around. I believe an experienced musician and conductor is involved primarily in teaching. Whether I’m in the choir room or with my adult choir, it’s all about bringing something to someone that they may not otherwise hear or experience.

What did you want to be when you were 10 years old?
An airline pilot. I travelled a lot at that age and I had this little book that the captain would sign whenever I would fly. It was hugely inspiring. It may have been the start of being quite enamored of flying. In the summers when I was in university I worked up north cutting trees and maintaining the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. During that time I flew in helicopters a lot and had a lot of off-the-book flying instruction. I went for my private fixed-wing license, but eventually realized that I was not cut out for severe turbulence, or for spinning towards the ground to practice recovering from stalling.

When have you felt your biggest adrenaline rush?
Travelling at high speed on skis, and often when conducting large musical works.

What was the first concert you went to?
I saw Daniel Barenboim play with the Victoria Symphony. He’s an Argentinian/Israeli classical pianist and conductor. As a teenager I saw The Doobie Brothers and Chicago in Vancouver, and I loved those.

What is one thing you can’t live without?
My family, followed by the music of JS Bach. Ok, that’s two.

What movie have you watched the most in your life?
Cinema Paradiso. It’s an Italian movie that I love, partly because it’s set in Sicily and partly because of the important message it sends.

What’s been your most memorable teaching moment?
Without doubt it’s when a student – perhaps somebody who struggles – is determined to overcome and achieve their musical goals or develop new interests, or try to achieve what I’m setting for them, and they achieve it. This happens, thankfully, fairly regularly. There were several students at this week’s Large Ensembles Concert who’ve never sung a solo in public. So, that was a truly red-letter day, as I see it. Even in class recently, a student who had never sung a solo did so, four bars long, and the look on her face was quite beyond words.

What are you currently reading?
Juan de Fuca’s Strait by Barry Gough.

What’s the best part of your job?
The SMUS community. And, specifically, the company, the inspiration and the laughter of the students.

What’s your favourite meal?
Anything Italian.

What do you love about living on Vancouver Island?
I love it here because my family is here, and because I love the sea and mountains. I also love the uncertainty of the weather.

Have you ever been on TV?
A fair number of times all over the place. For example, England, Brazil, Belgium, Italy. There was one memorable time in Italy where we spent about three days getting ready with technical rehearsals so the cameras knew where to shoot, and when it came time for the show, one of the guys on camera was new. There was one bit when I was separated from other parts of the ensemble doing a solo and I could see which camera was on and that the new cameraman had no idea where I was; he was panning back and forth and couldn’t find me until after my solo. I almost cracked up in concert.

What was your favourite childhood Halloween costume?
I was a Highwayman when I was probably 11 or 12. I loved the mask! My delight of it all was going down to the Oak Bay fire hall and parading around near the annual bonfire. I had a proud moment winning best costume in class!

Have you ever won anything?
The Highwayman recognition was huge.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
To give everyone the mandatory characteristic of humility. I like to see people who are competent at what they do, and are not encumbered by a feeling of importance or a sense of entitlement.

If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?
I would travel around, sail, read and spend a large part of the year in Italy.

What are you passionate about?
I love talking to people. I love asking, “What are you interested in?” In essence, I always make room for a chat.

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Kyle Slavin
Kyle Slavin is the school's storyteller. Through words and photos, he shares with the community all the amazing things that happen on campus.

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