Whether it was grieving with a group of singers after the suicide of a fellow student or helping a young woman find confidence, Johnny Matlock has spent 30 years doing more than teaching students how to read music.
He has taught them how to be successful human beings, something he hopes to continue in his new job.
After more than 30 years in music education, Johnny Matlock, choir director at Hays High School, is taking on a new role.
Matlock will be the new Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas instructor at HHS. The program, which is also known as JAG-K, was approved by the school board in March and will ramp up for its first year starting next week.
The program helps students graduate high school, work on career planning, enhances leadership skills and develop job skills. Students will visit workplaces and colleges, participate in a career club and perform 10 hours of community service.
“I have been very fortunate for all my life, really, to do something I am passionate about and that I love doing, and music has been that avenue for me,” Matlock said of his career in music education.
“It is still very, very important to me. I knew if I was every going to make a change, it was going to have to be something I was equally passionate about, so when this opportunity came along with this job with Jobs for America’s Graduates, I think it is a program that I believe in. I think it is going to offer students a lot. It is something I can be passionate about, and it just seemed the right time in our lives to do it. Change is a good thing,” he said.
Matlock spent 10 years teaching music in the Bonner Springs school district, before moving to Hays, where he has spent the last 20 years. Matlock taught choir at both HHS and HMS, as well as directed school musicals for many years.
Matlock said he had many wonderful moments teaching choir, and he fell in love with whatever piece of music or musical he was working on at the time.
Matlock said music brings much to a child’s education.
“They tell us that students who are involved in extra curricular activities do better in school—do better in academics,” he said. “Music has a lot to back that up just in terms of brain development and thinking skills. Music has a big connection with math. … I think their confidence, and I believe music has an ability to touch us in very special ways—in ways that other things do not.”
Matlock came from a musical family. He grew up taking private piano lessons, but his school in rural Arkansas had no music program.
“I went to college and was going to be a piano and composition major. That is what I wanted to do,” he said. “[I] heard the choirs rehearsing in the halls, and thought, ‘Wow, I want to be part of that.’ That was a life-change moment. I changed directions.”
The music he picked for his students allowed him to discuss delicate topics with them. The students performed a large piece by Dan Forrest called “A Requiem for the Living.” He said the piece allowed the students to talk about the legacy they leave, the way they influence people and the importance of life.
“Just about being human beings. … I think it deepened their thoughts about those things,” he said. “Music challenges us in that way.”
A student at Hays High School committed suicide during the last school year. She was a choir member.
“It was during that time, we were doing a song from ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ a musical, called ‘You Will Be Found,’ ” he said. “I remember coming back into the classroom on the morning that we found out about it, and I had Chamber Singers that day. We really didn’t need to talk about anything, but that is the song they wanted to sing.
“It talks about people who have just reached the bottom. There is no way out, and it was a piece that gave them hope and our responsibility to reach out to others. It was a very neat moment.”
One of Matlock’s former students Rachelle Lumpkins said Matlock encouraged her when she most needed it. She joined the musical her freshman year, but people were making fun of her size. Matlock read a self-effacing comment she had made about herself in her email signature line.
He mailed back a list of Lumpkins’ positive attributes ending with, “And you are beautiful!! God made you in HIS image! Music is the universal language transcending bias and what is bad in our world … the world needs your voice. You make a difference!”
Lumpkins kept that email as a positive reminder of her teacher’s encouragement. Matlock continued to encourage Lumpkins to follow her dream of becoming a music educator.
“He really encouraged me when I didn’t even expect him to read my signature,” she said. “I knew from that day on that he was a genuine guy who cared deeply for his students.”
Matlock started the Full Chord Press, an all boys musical group about seven years ago. The group started with about seven boys and ended with 40 to 50 boys in sixth through 12th grades.
“I am very proud of that program because of what it does for those young men,” he said, “not just musically, but the mentoring of them and helping them to become leaders and seeing them grow.”
Another of Matlock’s goals was to elevate the concert choir to the level of the Chamber Signers.
“I think over the last couple of years through the scores they were receiving at contest, I think we accomplished that,” he said. “That group at state large group even got a standing ovation from the people in the audience.”
Matlock takes his Chamber Singers on a trip every other year. This summer, the students went to New York and sang at the United Nations for his last performance with them.
The HHS group of 27 performed a selection of a cappella pieces in the entryway to the UN. The pieces were themed around music’s effects on people’s lives. One of the songs, “Even When He Is Silent,” is based on an anonymous poem that was found on a concentration camp wall.
“We were singing about a piece of hope and how love can make a difference,” he said. “It was very meaningful singing that in the UN and making the connection, at least I thought it was, with the world. You know that we are all human beings.”
Although that last trip was bittersweet for Matlock and his students, he said he has confident his students will continue to be successful.
“I have no doubt with the new person coming in—Alex Underwood. He is just awesome—that they are going to pick up right where we left off, and they are going to be the bearers of the tradition and they are going to make sure that the bar stays high,” Matlock said.
Matlock will not be stepping completely away from music. He will still be the Chancel Choir director at the First United Methodist Church. He also will be opening a piano and voice studio at 809 Main St. in Hays. He and his wife are living above the studio.
Matlock will be teaching group piano lessons with up to six students in a class.
“My goal is to teach them piano skills, sure I want to teach them to read music, but I want them to want to go home and sit down at the piano and play,” he said.
Matlock’s studio Facebook page is still in the works, but you will be able to find him online at matlockmusicworks.com.