Phil Scales writes book about symphony orchestras in Watertown and Huron

Crystal Pugsley of the Plainsman
Posted 10/7/23

Former Huron conductor writes book

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Phil Scales writes book about symphony orchestras in Watertown and Huron

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Classical music has been a part of Phil Scales life since a 5-year-old listening to the riveting “William Tell Overture” accompanying the antics during Saturday morning cartoons.

“I fell in love with classical music watching the old cartoons,” said Scales. “I knew in eighth grade I wanted to be an orchestra conductor; but my teachers always told me there was no one in that industry that looks like me, so it was a challenge most of the time.”

Scales, who is Black, has written a book about his years as a symphony orchestra conductor in both Huron and Watertown — when he was the only Black conductor in the nation.

“They Called Me Mr. Scales,” is available at Barnes & Noble and through Amazon.

“The book is written through the eyes of a Black man,” said Scales, who directed the Huron Symphony for 11 years, as well as launching the Watertown Symphony. “The book is about a young Black man who had a dream and all the trials and tribulations that he had to go through to achieve that dream.”

Scales said people have asked him why he decided to write a book about his career as an orchestra conductor.

“I tell them that from 2014 on, we had the riots in Missouri . . . a lot of the younger Black generation was doing just the opposite of Martin Luther King’s dream,” he said. “Most of the times, things they see about African Americans they see on TV, which is relatively negative.

“I walked through my whole life where I was the only Black man in the room, but I continued to go on and become successful,” he said. “There was no Black community in South Dakota. I lived in Watertown, 20,000 people and one of two Black men in town. Half the people couldn’t tell us apart.

“It’s easy to sit in a group and say we want this and that and that,” Scales said. “What happens when a Black man or woman steps out of that comfort? You have battles to fight in order to get things done. My book outlines the things that a Black man went through in South Dakota.”

Scales was living and teaching in Watertown in 1990 when he was asked to lead the Huron Symphony, and he also stepped in to direct the Huron High School Orchestra from 1990-91.

He started the Watertown Symphony from scratch in 1992, setting up bylaws, a board and hiring musicians. Then set to work on developing a full youth symphony in Watertown, which  won international trophies in both 1997 and 1998.

“I was doing the Huron Symphony on Monday nights, Watertown on Tuesday nights, Watertown youth Saturday mornings, plus teaching at the (Watertown) junior high,” Scales said. “When I left Watertown in the summer of 2000, the last concert was in May. I left that June and the Watertown Symphony lights never came on again, there was no one to step in and take over.

“At that particular time, from the 1980s to 2000, there weren’t any Black orchestra conductors,” Scales added. “I was the only one in the country doing it — and I was doing two, Huron and Watertown.”

His biggest production was in 1999, when he directed the Huron Symphony Orchestra in a joint production with dancers from the Johnny Cavelle Dance Studio in Huron. That show was  “The Nutcracker Suite.”

“All my kids play,” Scales added. “Martha (his wife) played in both the Huron and Wateron symphony, my son Michael was an all state violin, and when we did the Nutcracker, my son was playing lead chello, he was only 15 years old at that time.”

Scales said he taped portions of each of the symphony programs he directed between Huron and Watertown, and has all 97 of them available for anyone to view on YouTube.

“Classical music will never die, but the problem is that it may not be heard if you don’t have the people playing it,” he said. “If you don’t have that energy on the podium to keep it alive, it tends to die.”

Scales, who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., attended college on a football and baseball scholarship. He and his wife have four adult children and six grandchildren.

They now live in Sheboygan, Wis., where he gives motivational speeches on PMA (Positive Mental Attitude).

His publishing name, LEEMON Publishing, stands for the first initial of each of his grandchildren.

“I retired almost seven years ago and my grandkids are ages 8 to 4 months old, they don’t know about my past,” Scales said. “My YouTube is a legacy for them.”