Learn how a college professor in Minnesota used his community choir and the popularity of a successful PBS show to draw a new choral audience!
Matthew Mehaffey is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Minnesota, where he conducts the University Singers and Men’s Chorus, and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Conducting and Literature. He is also the Artistic Director of the Oratorio Society of Minnesota, a role he assumed in 2008. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehaffey holds degrees from Bucknell University (B.M.), Westminster Choir College (M.M.), and the University of Arizona (D.M.A).
Recent engagements include work with Washington National Opera, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Prague Proms, Lyra Baroque Orchestra, VocalEssence, Minnesota Chorale, Singers in Accord, and Turner Network Television.
He has lectured nationally and internationally on the topic of rehearsal technique and is a frequent guest conductor of festival choruses. He is the author of Choral Ensemble Intonation and the editor of Teaching Music Through Performance in Choir, both for GIA Publications. He recently co-authored (with colleague Kathy Romey) a chapter on American choral music for the internationally released, The Cambridge Companion to Choral Music.
Additionally, Dr. Mehaffey serves as Director of Music at Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul. He enjoys golf, baseball, and curling in his spare time. He lives with his wife Libby, daughters Veda, Colette and Summer, and their dog Bettis.
The moment you knew you’d dedicate your life to music
Grew up participaing in music at the church he grew up in and in the band. He started to sing in choir in high school. He was encouraged to audition for the “District” chorus, a regional PMEA chorus. The conductor of the group was Tom Douglas, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He thought “maybe I could do that” when watching Mr. Douglas conduct. He went to Bucknell for political science, but after an invite from Dr. Payn at Bucknell to join the Rooke Chapel Choir, he turned music major, and the rest is history!
Worst musical moment
After a few years into teaching at George Washington University, his wife wanted to move back to Minnesota, her home state. He applied for a job in Minnesota and was in the final stages on the hiring process. He felt he did his best. He didn’t get the job, and felt very disappointed. He so wanted to make this move to start his family. A few months later, his current position came open, and it was his dream job! It was the perfect fit for him.
Takeaway: Sometime you don’t get what you want, but its for a good reason.
The proudest musical moment
The whole year of 2014 was very satisfying to Dr. Mehaffey, in that he was living the life of a full-time professional musician. He created numerous new oratorio productions, two European tours, several large works with orchestra. The opportunities were so meaningful in so many ways, with so many people.
Marketing to his audience at Oratorio Society of Minnesota, which gives four major concerts per year. He recognizes the challenge of being in an ivory tower academic situation. He thinks “As someone who’s predisposed to liking choral music, what would get me off the couch to go see this?”. After binge-watching Downton Abbey, his wife came up with the idea of a Downton Abbey concert, that became an oratorio. So he took works of composers like Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, and Holst and paired it with the musical storyline of the show. The concert was very successful because the crowd came from the Downton Abbey crowd. He gained many new subscribers from that concerts. So many, that he had to program an ADDITIONAL show. He’s now working with NBC to get rights to work with other choirs to produce other Downton Abbey concerts.
Most excited about right now
What he’s currently doing! He doing the Honeeger King David, and the Chichester Psalms. He’s also taking a sabbatical to work on his “Greatest Generation” project in the fall.
Advice for your younger self
He should have never stopped taking piano, and to never take for granted to opportunities to make music.
What makes a great conductor?
Be a listener, not only the music that’s coming at you, but the human stuff. It allows you to be not only reactive, but proactive.
Being able to continually ask questions.