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Hickman choral director influences student voices, lives

Monday, April 25, 2011 | 12:13 p.m. CDT; updated 11:33 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 25, 2011
Hickman High School choir director Matt Felts gestures to his choir students for the notes to sing during class on March 23 at Hickman High School. Felts said he enjoys giving his students an outlet to express themselves without apprehension.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect class for Lindsey Mirielli.

COLUMBIA — When Matt Felts was a junior in high school, he looked his choir director in the eye and told him one day, he would take his job.

That was in 1999. Eight years later, he did.

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Felts took over for Martin Hook as Hickman High School’s choir director in August 2007 and has since helped lead the group toward a number of accomplishments.

In January, his A Cappella Singers were one of six high school groups invited to perform at this year's Missouri Music Educators Association Conference and Clinic. Felts said it was an honor to be selected. 

The A Capella Singers travel to Kansas City next weekend to compete at the Worlds of Fun Choral Festival, where they placed first last year.

Under Felts's leadership, Hickman is home to four choirs, with a combined total of 121 singers. The esteemed A Capella Singers are made up of juniors and seniors who audition for a place in the group.

There is also a Bel Canto group for women in grades 10-12, the Men's Chorus and the Women's Chorale. A fifth group, Les Chanteurs, is an extracurricular chamber choir made up of 22 seniors from the A Capella Singers. 

On a typical school day, students in the A Cappella Singers gather in the Fine Arts Building at 11 a.m. They rest their backpacks along the walls, some take off their shoes and then they assemble on the risers. The room is full of chatter. 

Then they begin to sing. Conversations stop, voices rise and the choir blends into a  powerful ensemble.

The experience reminds him of a family, Felts said, and he is still amazed every time he gets a paycheck for doing something he loves so much.

Hickman sophomore Cecilia Davis, a member of the Bel Canto singing group, called choir one of the highlights of her day and pointed to Felts as the reason.

"He says hilarious things all the time," she said. "He’s willing to help any kid, and when you’re on a really bad day, he can tell. Even though he’s a young teacher, we don’t try to take advantage of that.”

Debbie Jacobs, coordinator of fine arts, said he reminds her of her father, also a choral director at Hickman.

"He’s very, very focused and good at what he does," Jacobs said. "He is able to bring the kids to heights that you just can’t even imagine.”

Many of his students have been recognized for their work. Junior* Lindsey Mirielli and sophomore Devin Bowne were selected in March for the All-National American Choral Directors Association Honor in Chicago. A number of students received a "1" rating at the district solo and small ensemble contest and will advance to the state contest April 28 at MU. 

Despite their success, Felts said finding his dream job was not easy.

He did not become involved with choir until seventh grade at West Junior High, and only then because of a sports-related injury. He was actually dedicated to basketball.

“I loved playing basketball," he said. " I was trying out for the basketball team, and we were running laps.

"This guy claims it was an accident — I don’t think it was, but I’m not still angry or anything,” he explained, his voice trailing off.

“He checks me into the side of this wall and there was this ficus, this tree, and we’re running full speed, and I crash and break my wrist.”

Unable to compete, Felts turned to choir. At first, he did not invest much time in it or join any outside ensembles.

Then, during his junior year, the group embarked on a tour of Europe.

“Singing in those places, it was just inspiring,” he said. “To see those people and the impact that music had on them and the director, because he was moved by it, too.

"It was just this neat synergy that I just sensed, like, ‘I’ve got to have that; I want to be a part of that.'”

It was the beginning of a path that would shape his life. Felts continued to sing through his senior year, when choir delivered another dividend.

“I was a big bad senior, but this little sophomore girl caught my eye," he said.

He wrote a poem about taking her to a movie for her birthday.

“Since she already knew me and wanted to go out in the first place, it wasn’t really fair. So we started dating and never stopped,” he said.

They married in the summer of 2004.

Felts earned his bachelor's degree in vocal music education at Missouri State University in Springfield. Then, while working toward a master’s degree, he landed his first job as choir director at Kickapoo High School in Springfield.

The director had left abruptly in the middle of the year, and Felts was asked to take over. He expanded the group from 250 to 350 students, about a quarter of the student body.

He finished the school year at Kickapoo and stayed for the next, until the job at Hickman finally opened up. Martin Hook personally called him about the job.

“It’s pretty rare because there are only two of these jobs in the city,” Felts said. “Stars had to be aligned."

He compared the chance of becoming director to learning the secret formula for Pepsi.

“It’s a carefully guarded secret, handed down to one person at a time. I think it’s neat having gone here and now taking over. It was a good fit, seamless really.”

Felts considers relationships the most important aspect of choir. Even though he loves music, he said he loves his students more. He calls it one key to being an educator.

"Love the weirdness of young people and know that you yourself are weird and that you don’t have all the answers," he said.

He paused and grew more thoughtful.

"The students make me want to be better, because a lot of them are a lot better than me,” he said and laughed, “and definitely a lot smarter than I am.”


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