Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Last Concert . . . A Tribute to Sherri Matthews

Tonight I will attend the last chorus concert at Godwin High School directed by Sherri Matthews. After a long and historically successful tenure as Choral Director, Sherri is stepping down at the end of the school year to pursue yet another high stress, cut-throat job... in church music.  So tonight will be her last concert, and I will be there with Pam and my two kids, both of whom were her former students. My nephew Ryan will be singing in a couple of the choirs. There's a picture of the empty auditorium on Facebook that shows over half the seats with saved markers on them. Four of them better be mine.

My exposure to Godwin Chorus and Sherri only goes back to Kaitlin's freshman year, 2001.  Before then, I thought all high school chorus programs consisted of 25 or so kids looking for an easy "A," half of whom were tone deaf.  My image of chorus teachers conjured up a cross between Mr. Whipple and Aunt Bea.  But soon, I began to hear stories about this crazy Diet Dr.Pepper-swilling woman at Godwin who made music fun, demanded excellence from her students, and was a little scary.  All Kaitlin would say was that, "Ms. Matthews is really demanding, Dad . . . but we really sound good!"  The winter concert that year, my first of many, was beyond description.  Instead of 25 kids, there were hundreds . . . and six different choirs. There were barber shop and beauty shop groups, all-girl choirs, mixed choirs, a show choir, and a kind of "all-star" group called "Madrigals."  I sat there in my cramped, uncomfortable seat in a standing room only auditorium, amazed at the talent, poise and passion of the students and the commanding presence of their director.  She WAS a little scary, and she meant business brother.  The kids knew it and so did everyone in the house. The richness of the music that came out of those kids was astonishing. The best part was that they were having fun and brimming with confidence as they sang.  Real confidence, the kind that can only come from real accomplishment.  Sherri wasn't running a feel-good program where everyone gets a trophy for  showing up.  She was educating a large group of young people about the beauty of music that deserved one's best effort, the proper expression of which took hard work.  I was hooked.

Soon it began, the six years of Pam's work with Choral Boosters (the fund-raising juggernaut of Short Pump), my years wielding the clip-board at concerts explaining to angry parents and grandparents why, "No, you can't sit there, because that seat is reserved for our Platinum Club members!"  There were state and regional competitions, most of which we rocked, and spring trips all over the east coast from Orlando to New York. There were a series of unflattering choir dresses, ill-fitting tuxedos and six end of the year awards dinners.  But mostly . . . there was the music.  I would sit there in the darkness, oddly fighting back tears as I listened.

Tonight I will listen again.  Kaitlin will be there.  When she went off to college she eagerly joined  the Cedarville woman's choir that was led by a very talented and wonderful woman.  After one year Kaitlin dropped out.  When I asked why she said, "Dad, the director was very nice and we sounded good, but just about the time we got close to getting a song  right, she would stop and say, "Good enough."  Ms. M NEVER said, "Good enough."  Patrick will also be there. He is on the road as I write this, making the 9 hour drive from Nashville to be here. It was Sherri who provided the leadership and example that encouraged Patrick to pursue a life in music.  Tonight, Madrigals will perform one of his arrangements. The chances of me having a huge knot in my throat are approximately 100%.

So thank you, Sherri, for being the type of educator who nobody forgets.  Thanks for introducing the beauty of music to an entire generation of Henrico county students.  Thanks for being tough, demanding, and yes . . . scary.  Thanks for ruining Kaitlin's college choir experience.  Oh, and see ya at church Sunday!