Lt. Col. Steven Thorp, associate professor of music and choral director at New Mexico Military Institute, discusses his 17-year-long career at NMMI on Friday. (Randal Seyler Photo)
If there is a theme to the life of Lt. Col. Steven Thorp, it would be Southeastern New Mexico.
“I’ve lived a Highway 70 life,” jokes Thorp, choral director and associate professor of music at New Mexico Military Institute.
Thorp hails from Alamogordo, and he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. He has spent the past 17 years teaching at NMMI, and the previous 12 years, he taught at Roswell High School.
“I was recruited from Roswell High by former music director Mike Donovan. I owe him for this fantastic opportunity — him and former Dean William Gibbs, I owe those two gentlemen a debt of gratitude.”
“When I was a high school student in Alamogordo, I came over here for a week one summer, and I remember being impressed when I saw the grades that were posted,” Thorp recalls. “I thought, ‘either these are some poor students or the standards here are really high — and I imagined it was that the standards were really high. And I was right.”
Thorp never attended NMMI as a student, nor was he ever in the military.
“My rank is an honor and relates only to the Institute,” Thorp says. “I was never in the military, and I remember growing up in the ’70s and watching the daily news reports on the Vietnam War and the casualty counts. That really affected me.”
Thorp’s parents, Don and Maud, encouraged him in his pursuit of education — his father is a highly regarded music educator as well.
“I told myself when I was young, there were two things I would never do — I would never teach, and I would never be in the military,” Thorp says with a laugh. “Never say never.”
His father was a high school choir director as well; in fact, Thorp took choir classes under his father in high school.
“It’s like that song, ‘Leader of the Band,’ Thorp said. “Dad’s my ‘Leader of the Choir.’ He retired some time ago, but I try to emulate him.”
Don Thorp was inducted to the New Mexico Music Educators Hall of Fame, and Thorp says his father is a wonderful role model both as an educator and a parent.
“I owe him and my mother a great debt of gratitude, many of my successes have come through my parents.”
Thorp’s wife, Vanda, hails from Clovis, and they have two daughters, Lauren, 25, and Mara, 19. Both girls graduated from Goddard High School and went on to New Mexico University.
Thorp says although NMMI may not be the first school one thinks of when they think of artistic or musical opportunities, the cadets at the school are very creative and art classes are often filled, sometimes even having waiting lists, as the young students look for creative outlets in their education.
“We are a very unique institution, in that we take students from ninth-graders to junior college, and they come in with all levels of skills and abilities,” Thorp says. “We have 13-year-olds singing with college sophomores. The challenge can be choosing material that is accessible for the beginning students, yet still challenging for the advanced students.”
Since NMMI does not receive a steady stream of middle school children from one source, but accepts students from all over the state and nation, as well as internationally, the incoming classes can be wildly divergent. The one thing the cadets all have in common, however, is the rigorous academic standards of NMMI.
NMMI is very supportive of the arts, and Thorp is proud that not only does the school host programs, such as the Navy Band Sea Chanters Chorus, who performed on campus on March 10, but he often gets to take choral students to see performances by professional musical companies.
“We will be going to see ‘West Side Story’ at the Spencer Theater at the end of the month,” Thorp said. He has taken students to New York to see Broadway performances as well.
“We have traveled all over the area and even the country, and I really want to thank the Institute for that opportunity. The support for the arts, and especially the music programs, is just fantastic.”
The NMMI choral students also tour, which is a unique experience for junior high- and high school-level students. Likewise, the students who are enrolled in the college courses, get leadership roles in musical direction that they would not likely be afforded if they were freshmen or sophomores at a four-year institution.
“The musical experiences the cadets get in the program are really advanced for their grade levels,” Thorp said.
NMMI cadets have performed at Ground Zero in New York, and at all the U.S. service academies, as well as all over New Mexico.
“We have a standing invitation to perform at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and I think that is just fantastic,” Thorp said.
“I cherish travel, and I believe it is a building block of education,” Thorp said. “Music opens up doors for us to travel, and through travel, the cadets often get an opportunity to learn and experience things that they may not even realize they’ve learned until sometime in the future.”
Thorp says he can travel anywhere in the country and he’ll run into NMMI graduates.
“If I am wearing an Institute shirt, chances are someone will approach me and tell me either of their time here or of their children’s experiences. It is really humbling to realize what great history and tradition we have here at the Institute.”