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GHS choir director achieves career aspiration

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | October 24, 2022 12:00 AM

Once Nathan Connell stood in the choir classroom risers as a Glacier High School student. Today, he stands at the podium conducting students as the choir director in his fourth year of teaching.

“It’s awesome. It’s crazy. This was kind of a dream of mine that I thought would happen maybe 10 or 15 years into my career,” Connell said.

After graduating from Morehead State University in Kentucky in 2018, where he double majored in vocal education and percussion performance, he thought he would either attend graduate school or teach abroad. When Connell ultimately decided to start a teaching career in the U.S., he got a text from his high school band teacher-now-colleague, David Barr.

“I got a text from Mr. Barr saying I think we’re going to be looking for a choir director and I couldn’t not apply,” Connell said.

Despite returning to his alma mater, the first few years were more challenging than he predicted.

“I kind of thought I would be immune to the struggles of the new teacher that everybody talks about. I was walking into the program I graduated from. I was teaching at my high school, and so I thought this would be, you know, a perfect fit and it was hard”

The first year he found himself putting in long work days, well beyond school hours.

“By December I was feeling pretty burned out,” Connell said, realizing it wasn’t sustainable.

“I tried to make some conscientious decisions to be a bit more focused on balancing work and life,” he said, by doing things like joining the Skimo League at Big Mountain or spending time with friends. “I was able to strike a balance and right before the shutdown [due to Covid-19] I really felt like I was hitting my stride.”

“Covid had its own challenges and struggles,” Connell said, as schools shifted between online and in-person formats.

The continuity this year has provided has brought relief.

“This is the first year, year four, that’s felt like I’ve been able to be like, OK, I can take the things that worked and actually apply them this year,” he said.

CONNELL PERSERVERED through those challenging years to find his rhythm again because he’s wanted to be a music teacher ever since elementary school. Although his family didn’t have musical backgrounds, his parents nurtured his interests and talents. He started piano lessons in either first or second grade and picked up the trumpet by sixth grade. It was the sixth-grade band that played an important part in developing his ear for music, according to Connell, who recalled listening to movie soundtracks, trying to figure out the trumpet fingerings.

“I’ll still sometimes, when I’m singing something, try to do the trumpet fingerings to figure out what my [octave] jumps sound like,” he said.

He went on to take band all four years of high school and joined the concert choir and Glacier Echoes, a select choir, in his junior year. By college, he was in the competitive marching band circuit as a performer — and later staff member — of the Colorado-based Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps.

Music is a connecting force in Connell’s life.

“To me it’s all about connections. I’ve met so many close people in my life. My best friends. My biggest mentors have all come through music. Some of my friends that I was with in high school choir here at Glacier — we still get tougher and have dinner,” he said. “The relationships you build through music last a lifetime.”

Little did he know that when he took the choir teaching job at Glacier, he would sit next to and meet his future fiancee at Kalispell Public Schools' first-year teacher academy.

“I’m getting married this year to a wonderful math teacher at Flathead,” he said.

TEACHING MUSIC means teaching life skills, according to Connell

“They’re learning so much in the music classroom that they get to carry with them after high school. They’re learning teamwork and collaboration; they’re learning humanities; learning about different cultures through different pieces that we sing; they’re learning foreign languages; they’re learning math concepts by learning to read the music,” he said.

Collaboration is key in Connell’s teaching style. Each year he and Flathead High School choir director Jennifer Stephens will co-teach classes a couple of times a year at the two high schools.

“A huge part of it is vocal modeling,” he said.

Connell, who is a baritone, and Stephens, who is a soprano, can demonstrate what good tones sound like for students, he said.

Collaborating with community members or groups is something Connell wants to do more, noting an experience last year where the Flathead Valleyaires barbershop chorus worked with bass and tenor student singers at Glacier and Flathead.

“I know the kids really enjoyed it. The more chances we have to be part of the community in whatever that looks like I think is a benefit for both the kids and the community members they work with,” Connell said.

And if anyone has ideas, Connell has an open ear.

“I’m an ideas person. I love ideas on opportunities for our kids to get out in the community and sing and perform and collaborate,” he said.

He would also like to grow the program. Currently, there are about 150 choir students.

“My goal is by the time they graduate they can pick up a piece of music and they don’t need anybody around them to be able to read it. They should be able to enjoy it like opening up a book and understanding what’s going on,” he said.

And his hope is that students walk away with a perspective that through hard work they can achieve things they might not have thought possible.

“Adversity is not a bad thing and challenge is not a bad thing,” he said. “You just get stronger and become a more centered and strong human being through those.”

Outside of teaching, Connell occasionally still performs as a percussionist with the Glacier Symphony and at Flathead choir concerts. He is an avid outdoorsman.

“Now that I’m back in Montana I can do all the things that I like to do like skiing and hiking and I’ve learned how to ice climb and a bunch of really fun outdoor stuff and I’m close to my family and it’s just been so great to be back here,” he said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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