“They Might Come for the Music, but They Stay for the People”

A Conversation with Matt Lee about programming and building a positive choir culture

I met with Matthew Lee, director of choirs at JP Stevens High School, to talk about repertoire and rebuilding programs after COVID. JP Stevens Chamber Ensemble is performing for the ACDA National Conference in Cincinnati and was most recently at Boston in 2022 at the ACDA East Conference. Check out our 20 minute conversation in the video!

-Will Gunn, High School R&R Chair

Tell us about your choral program at JP Stevens HS:

I’ve been there for seven years, and I’m actually an alumnus of the school. My time in the program had a great impact on me so I came back here to teach! We have about 2700 kids in our school and 140 involved in choir. I have 130 enrolled and then another 15 or so come after school. 

We have our Concert Choir (“y’all come”), out of that choir we have our slightly more advanced A cappella choir, and then out of that we have our Chamber Ensemble which is about 30-32 students, which is the choir that will be performing at ACDA. We also have our treble choir which is about 40-50 voices and our Tenor/Bass choir which is about 25 voices. Both of those groups meet after school. 

Tell us about what you’re singing in Cincinnati

To Sit and Dream- Rosephanye Powell (Langston Hughes text)

Until All of Us Are Free- Mark Burrows (Emma Lazarus Text)

Even After All this Time- Reena Esmail

The New Colossus- Saunder Choi

#United We Dream- Melissa Dumphy

*New Commission by Mark Miller (TBD)

All of this music is centered around belonging and the immigrant experience. The students in my school are mostly South Asian, so I was inspired to find a theme that was centered around them and helped to answer the question, “how do people who don’t belong to the majority find their place?” I think part of the answer to that is through music, loving, and belonging.

Talk to me about your programming for your introductory choir. What is your philosophy in finding the best music for your concert choir?

Kids come to me with a very mixed range of musical ability. I have kids who have played piano in Carnegie Hall and some kids that have never stepped into a music room. I usually have about 40 freshmen per year, and a few upperclassmen that join us after freshman year. In the past, I tried to program things that were too challenging and used my own strong musicianship to justify it. Over the last few years, I’ve really found that my job is to program for the choir that I have in front of me. This can be challenging when you don’t know what choir you have in August. This fall, we did the unison piece, Path to the Moon, for our fall concert. We’re also doing Al Shlosha D’varim which has its own challenges.

 They just need to be excited about singing. Other considerations include range, melodic interest, rhythmic ability, etc. I’ve found if the rhythm is too complicated for the time that you have, the piece will just not hold together.

The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to be flexible. There are times when I’ve scrapped plans for the rest of the year based on how the beginning of the year goes. There’s more value in finding music that they can do really well than picking pieces that can barely hold together by the concert.

What lessons have you learned from remote teaching and pandemic restrictions?

In hindsight, I was too ambitious with the end products. When we were remote, I had everyone mute their microphone and had them do warm-ups with me. I’d run through the score and ask everyone if they had any questions and, of course, get nothing back. Then you keep hounding the kids for getting the recordings done to put together the virtual concerts. Between me and my student teacher, we had produced 10 pieces for each concert which was way too many. 

What I wish I would have done is focused more on community. Maybe they were more interested in individual pursuits or reviewing a concert together. I could have focused on two or three songs that were really polished rather than having 10 mediocre performances. It just wasn’t worth it.

As we focus on rebuilding, our jobs are really just to let kids know that choir is here and it’s a really fun thing to do! They might come for the music, but they stay for the people. Our own students are our best recruiters. Giving them a positive experience is the best tool for building a program.

Lightning Round!

What is your favorite that you’ve programmed this year thus far?

Until All of Us Are Free- Mark Burrows. It has been really impactful for the students with such a strong message. There are a ton of angsty and crunchy chords in there and the kids really just get to sing. 

What’s a piece that you’ve programmed recently that you can’t wait to do again?

Tres Cantos Nativos- Marcos Leite

They’ve just never heard anything like it! They love the sound effects.

What’s your favorite New England state?

Tough one!! (Does New Jersey / New York not count??) I’d have to go with Massachusetts. We loved Boston at ACDA East! I loved the Clam Chowder. (Although, thinking back on this – I have so many friends in Connecticut!!)

Who’s a conductor or composer that you’d love to work with your choirs that you haven’t yet?

I would love for my students to work with Dr. Deanna Joseph from Georgia State University!

Do you have any bucket list vacation travel destinations that you haven’t been to yet?

Germany or Italy!

What is on your bucket list for choral conducting?

Chichester Psalms or Mahler 2

Are you a “Do” based Minor or “La” Based Minor

“La” based minor all the way!