Meet A Member: Don Matlock, Montana A Cappella Society

“Our philosophy is no one should be denied the joy of music because of money. There’s no membership dues, there’s no fee for music. That carries over to the audience. All of our concerts are free to the public.”

Don Matlock knows he doesn’t run the biggest shop. “I went to the Montana Nonprofit Association conference one year and they were having a session for small non-profits,” Matlock recalls. “So here we are—our chorus is completely volunteer with a $2,400 budget—and I asked the presenter, ‘What’s your definition of a small nonprofit?’ And he thought for a minute and he said, ‘I’d say less than five full-time employees and $400,000 budget.’ So I said, ‘Ok, do you have a section for micro organizations?’”

This hasn’t slowed the Montana A Cappella Society’s dedication or pursuit of excellence by any means. “We know we’re clear out on the extreme end of the bell curve, but we are trying to do what we do as professionally as we can. We love to share our story. We believe that we are different enough that we can share a stage with anybody, and be complimentary and not competitive.”

Matlock spoke by phone with Chorus America CEO Catherine Dehoney for the first of our new Meet A Member series.

Q: When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?

A: Right now I’m on a 2500 mile motorcycle ride, checking in with my kids and seeing some friends. I’m in my 60th year of riding motorcycles. I started riding when I was 12, and I’m 72. Right now I’m in Vallejo, CA, that’s in the San Francisco Bay area. That’s my furthest point and tomorrow morning I start heading back towards Montana.

Q: How did you come to form the Montana A Cappella Society?

A: I grew up in a kind of musical family. My father as a young man was trained as a shape note singer. Growing up he thought there were two kinds of music: country and western. It was through seeing movies and hearing the soundtracks that I realized there was more to music than church hymns and country western. That completely altered my approach. I was an instrumentalist all through high school and was a music education major. My career led me into utilities construction and I was on the road all the time. When I retired, I had the opportunity to form the Montana A Cappella Society and try out my philosophy and found some people willing to support that mission.

Q: Do you do more than just direct the group?

A: Some of the pieces we do are my arrangements. I’m also the official state contact for the Society when we registered as a corporation. We rehearse in my living room—fortunately I have a large living room that has been used as a recording studio. Part of my basement is the costume area. The Society thinks they own the house—they just let me live there to make the payments.

Q: Where do you perform, and how often?

A: We perform in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, which is our home, just south of Missoula. We perform two concerts a year in the valley. One is a major Christmas program at the performing arts center at the local high school, and there’s a church where we do a Mother’s Day concert every year. Missoula has a New Year’s Eve celebration, and they do a First Night program up there. We’ve been a part of that long enough now that we’re billed as a tradition of First Night.

Meet A Member Snapshot 
Don Matlock
Title: Artistic Director 
Chorus: Montana A Cappella Society 
Type: Volunteer  
Location: Hamilton, MT (Western Montana) 
Founded: 2003 
Years with Organization: 12 (since founding) 
Number of Singers: Usually around 20 (not more than 28 by rule) 
Budget: $2,400 
Repertoire: a cappella; “early motets to renaissance madrigals to classic love songs, gospels, folk, patriotic, contemporary, and vocal jazz” 
*According to Matlock, the group performs only popular music— “any piece was popular somewhere in the world during the past six centuries.” 
Chorus America Member Since: 2010

We’ve performed in the state capitol, and several places around Western Montana. We were invited guest artists for the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco in 2005. In 2008, the Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington, DC came from the Bitterroot National Forest and we were invited back to perform for the lighting ceremony. As far as I know, we were the first U.S. community chorus to be invited to the International Choral Festival in Cork, Ireland, in 2013.

Q: How did Cork, Ireland hear about a small choir in Montana?

A: The way it happened actually, we were in Washington, DC for the tree lighting, and a bunch of the singers went on a pub crawl (one of the joys of having an adult choir). They were in an Irish bar [Ed: Fado, a well-known pub—Don later recounted that not all the members had enough money to pay the cover charge and buy drinks, so they managed to get in for free by singing]—they were being rowdy and decided what they really wanted to do was a pub crawl in Dublin.

We got home and one of the singers went online to find if there were any choral festivals in Ireland, and she found the one in Cork. She started a casual email conversation with one of the staffers. After a year or two of that, she mentioned, ‘oh by the way we’re a small group in Montana,’ and gave them the website. Two weeks later we got an email from the director of the festival asking us if we’d consider auditioning.

Q: Is there a big success your group has had that you are especially proud of?

A: Down on the Berra peninsula [of Ireland] is Europe’s Western-most copper mine. It played out in the late 1800s, just as the copper mines in Butte, Montana were coming into production. A lot of the Irish copper miners came to Butte. There’s still strong ties between Montana and Ireland—Montana has the largest percentage of Irish outside of Ireland anywhere in the world.

[As part of the trip to the Cork festival] we did a concert on the Berra peninsula with people whose grandparents had gone to Montana. They asked us to do a fundraising concert for the mining museum. They had a little coffee shop—if they took out all the tables, they could fit 82 chairs. They packed 106 people in at 40 euros a head for this fundraiser. It was just an amazing connection—we still get teary-eyed every time we think about that concert.

On the way, we were invited to a performance at the high school. One kid showed us a tin cup that his grandfather used in the mines in Butte—and they performed for us, and we for them. We were told that outside groups are never allowed into the primary schools. About three weeks before we left I got an email from the principal of the primary school saying, “I heard you’re going to be at the high school and we’re only a few blocks away. Could you come?” We when we left, we were on the bus pulling away and here come all of these kids running across the playground, waving.

That day is just about everybody’s favorite day. It was one of those magic days that I hope every choir has the chance to experience.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing your chorus?

A: We’re in a very rural area. We’re officially classified as “rural frontier.” I don’t have a large population group to get trained singers. What I’ve learned is to find people who maybe sang 40 years ago in high school, or have some choral experience, and pull them together.

We’re not going to be a major concert choir, but we’re dang good storytellers. What we try to do is perform with near-professional precision, and with that beautiful straight community chorus tone. And we work very hard on unifying the emotion behind the story, vowels, consonants, tone, the whole bit. If you’re telling a story and the audience can’t understand it, you might as well not be telling it.

Q: What made you join Chorus America?

A: We want to be a top-notch group. Looking at Chorus America, we felt that as a chorus this is something that we needed to be a member of. That’s what led us to join.

Q: Have you taken advantage of any member benefits in particular?

A: When we were getting ready for Ireland, we talked with the Chorus America office quite a bit about travel. And last year I was able to come back for the Conference. I read a lot of the articles—the ones that are pertinent I share with the singers. Our membership with Chorus America has been invaluable.

Montana A Cappella Society in Cork
The Montana A Cappella Society performing in their traditional costumes in Cork City Hall on their trip to Ireland in 2013.

Q: Do you have anything big planned for the future?

A: We want to continue performing in Western Montana of course because that’s our home. We don’t have anything concrete planned. We’ve got some things we’re exploring, and we have some places that have a standing invitation if we ever want to go to it, but unfortunately none of them have money. We would love to travel to Europe, or Asia…we want to travel, we just don’t know where yet.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the costumes that the Society wears. Do you always wear them? Do they ever change?

A: Our concerts are always in costumes. In Victorian England, the culture was very very stratified. And the only time there was any mixing of classes was street caroling at Christmas time. We costume to represent as many of the different social classes as we can—all the way from fishmongers to street people to upper class—to represent this togetherness at this one particular time. That’s our story for storytelling.

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.

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