Interview with David Matchim, Our Music Educator of the Year 2018!

Every year, Music & Arts highlights the work of an outstanding music educator with the Music & Arts Music Educator of the Year Award. We’re proud to announce that David Matchim, Director of Bands at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland, is this year’s recipient. David’s remarkable enthusiasm and commitment to enriching his student’s lives through music caught our attention. Kathleen Bellamy, National School Services Marketing Manager, traveled to Ellicott City to personally meet with David and  learn more about his life and teaching philosophy.

It’s incredible to meet you! Why don’t we start off with you introducing yourself?

I’m David Matchim, Director of Bands at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland. This is my ninth year teaching in Howard County and eighth year at Centennial High School. I was born in Newfoundland, Canada in a small fishing village of 600 people, and I moved to California when I was five years old.

What inspired you to get into music as a kid growing up in Canada?

Actually, in Newfoundland, cultural music is really big. The music is largely Irish, kind of a Celtic style, so I grew up listening to that. I have relatives that play guitar, accordion, spoons––all kinds of different things. Had I stayed in New Newfoundland, I probably would have picked up something more like that. So when I moved to California when I was in elementary school, I always wanted to join the band because it would have been my opportunity to play an instrument. It wasn’t until sixth grade that I could join, and then it was actually a parent that volunteered before school once a week to teach kids how to play instruments. We didn’t really have a band program.

I went home and said I wanted to play the clarinet. When I tried playing it, the reed put a splinter in my tongue. I went home, didn’t want to do it anymore, and decided to go with flute. My parents didn’t understand what band was in elementary, middle or high school because in the fishing villages in Newfoundland, it just wasn’t a thing. So they kind of had to learn what it was, and said yes, I could do it.

In middle school, I had the opportunity to play a brass instrument, which I didn’t in elementary school. My middle school band teacher actually spotted me and said, “I want you to play trumpet.” She needed trumpet players, but also she said I had “trumpet lips,” whatever that meant. She connected me with a teacher and convinced my parents to drive me an hour and 15 minutes each way to study with them.

You mentioned the teacher that spotted you. Can you talk a little more about that teacher and what other educators may have influenced you to pursue music?

Absolutely. I kind of credit my middle school band teacher for where I am today. She was the type of teacher that said “yes,” so when you went to her with an idea, she helped you make it happen. And I know we hear stories about kids who aren’t allowed to switch instruments because maybe it doesn’t work for the band, or they don’t want to have to get someone started over again in middle school. But I can honestly say that if I hadn’t switched to trumpet, I wouldn’t be where I am.

 Why do you think playing the trumpet was so important in your musical development?

I liked flute, but it wasn’t my passion. When I started trumpet, it just felt like my voice. The trumpet teacher that I went to was an incredible player that originally came from London and retired into wine country in northern California. That’s why I had to drive a hour and 15 minutes to get to him each way. He taught me a lot about what it means to be a musician. Not just how to play the instrument, but the type of person you are when you’re a musician. I was very lucky that my high school director was actually my middle school director’s husband. And so I stuck within the family, and he was great.

I’ve just been blessed with a lot of really great private instructors and conductors of ensembles that inspired me to be who I am. I’ve been lucky to never sit in front of a private teacher or a conductor that did anything but make me believe I could be better. I never felt torn down, and so I try really hard to do that now. Sometimes I think everybody benefits from a good kick in the butt, but at the end of the day, I knew that the person standing in front of me always wanted me to be amazing and that they believed in me.

When did you realize that you wanted to teach music?

I decided to teach music a little later than most people. I went to college with the idea of being a professional trumpet player. But I actually had a bit of a playing injury in my last year in my performance degree, so I had to reassess what I was going to do. I took a year off between undergrad and grad, and ultimately decided that I belonged in music education. It was one of those things that I realized looking back at my own education. I used to conduct my high school band when my band teacher was out, and I loved it. I think that my peers really enjoyed it as well.

When I was in college, I privately taught non-trumpet music majors that were in the college, and realized I spent just as much or more of my time teaching than performing. When I went to school for education, I found myself again. I think it happened for a reason. I’m much happier on this side of the bell, because I that’s where I get to use my strengths. I was a good player, but I love interacting with people, and I love teenagers.

Speaking of college, you were able to attend some pretty prestigious music schools. Can you tell me more about that and what advice you’d give to a student aspiring to apply to one of those schools?

I’m really fortunate to have attended some great schools, such as Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Peabody Institute here in Baltimore. I love what those schools did for me, and the experiences I’ve had there. There are teachers that I still keep in contact with those schools. But I think you can get the best education anywhere you go because success is based on the person. The students ask me a lot, “What does it take to be a professional musician?” Whether it’s an educator or performer, I think it’s just hard work. The people that I went to school with, the ones that worked hard every single day to be better than they were the day before, are the ones that are making a living in music. Do your best, don’t settle for anything less. And don’t make excuses.

There are many times that I’ve had to take a hard look at myself and say, “Work harder. You didn’t practice four hours today. Don’t make an excuse. Tomorrow, practice four hours.” So I think it’s just hard, hard work. I always joke with my kids that for centuries, young musicians have been trying to find a shortcut to be better, and it doesn’t exist. It’s just practice, practice, and practice.

How has your teaching philosophy evolved over the nine years you’ve been an educator?

What I wish I would have known before I first started at Centennial is that it’s so much more than just focusing on the sounds the kids are making and figuring out how to make them play better. I’ve had some really great mentors. One specifically was Mr. Jeff Brodie who was the middle school teacher at Burleigh Manor Middle School. A few of us in this feeder system were charged with the responsibility of putting on a presentation at one of our professional development days. In his portion, he talked about what it is to be a musician beyond the musical side of things. He talked about being on time, being committed, being respectful, being supportive, having initiative, all that extra non-musical stuff. I realized when he was giving that presentation that that was something I was missing.

You can really get a lot of bang for your buck by helping kids kind of find their way and be better people. And when they’re better people and they know what’s expected of them, that’s what makes the band sound better. Nothing takes the place of ownership. That’s what I understand now. It’s their product, not mine. I’m the only person in that room that doesn’t make a sound, so they have to understand that it’s their group, and I think that’s the big thing. It’s the community that’s built as part of that personal growth.   


What do you feel has been the biggest struggle that you’ve had as a music educator and how have you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges I think about being a teacher is that we always want the students to care as much about what we do as we do. I think it’s sometimes difficult to remember that you are just a small part of their life. I’m not discounting it, I think I’m a very important part of many of my students’ lives, and they’re an important part of mine. But they’re busy. I’m not that far removed from my students. I graduated from high school in 2002, so I’m lucky that I kind of get their perspective on a lot of things. But when they finish the school day, they go to sports practice, they go to their job, they go to their internship, they have tutoring, they have all these different things. The challenge is getting them to put in the time for what you’re working on. I expect my kids to practice, and I have my share of playing assignments and things like that, but I think it all goes back to making sure they feel like they belong, and it’s their product.

I think the hardest thing is getting them to work hard for you because they have to want that. Getting them so that at some point during the day, they think, “What do I need to do for my music class tomorrow?” They’re sometimes just trying to stay afloat, and you’ve got to find something that inspires them to work hard for you, and I think that “something” is each other.

What’s been the biggest success that you’ve had as a music educator?

We’ve had a lot of successes and recognition. Our program has grown, our performance level across the board in all of our performing groups keeps getting higher and higher. All that being said, I think the biggest reward is the kids. I’m very lucky for the performances that we have and that we have kids that come back. It means a lot. We just went to the Midwest Clinic and performed, and there were graduates out in that audience. And we performed at the Peabody Institute, there were graduates there too. When we go play at our county assessment, it sounds like a sporting event when we take the stage. For me, the biggest reward and accomplishment is that the students still feel like they belong. They still identify themselves as Centennial High School band students. That’s what it’s about.

Your Music & Arts Educational Representative Christine Martin is a huge supporter of music education in Howard County and particularly of you as a music educator. What role does she play in supporting you in your program?

We are so lucky to have Christine Martin as our educational representative for Howard County. There have been many times that I’ve called and emailed her needing something very, very quickly, and she’s come through. This year in fact, it was a baritone saxophone that kind of went caput on me right before Midwest. I called, and did some price shopping myself, but Christine was able to help me out and get me that instrument. It was here I think the next morning, if not the day after. We were losing rehearsal time because that student didn’t have an instrument. She made it happen. I remember talking to her on the phone, and she said there were like two or three in the country. She said she was going to call those warehouses and get Centennial High School’s name on it, and it happened. We were extremely thankful for that. She’s invaluable.

So many of the recommendation letters from your peers and former students speak highly about how you’ve grown the program here at the school. What do you think has been the biggest contributor to that?

One of the biggest things that’s celebrated about our program is that we’ve nearly doubled in size since I arrived at Centennial High School. I think there’s a lot of contributing factors to that. We have extremely talented feeder teachers at the elementary and middle school levels, and now the students are coming to the high school and sticking with it. We have great parents that support our program that value music. We have amazing administrators that value music. Our principal this year traveled with us to Midwest Clinic and spent the four days with us, which was awesome. And this is her first year in the building, so that’s extremely relieving for a music teacher to have that kind of support right off the bat.

I get a lot of questions about what the “magic trick” is, and I think one of the biggest mistakes that I see music teachers making is that sometimes they forget that they’re serving a community. I’m helping the community’s vision come to life. Sometimes that may differ then what I envision for the program, so I have to be strategic and kind of lead the way if I think it needs to be something else. But I think the key word there is “lead.” I’ve definitely had to make some tough decisions and say, “We’re doing this, we’re not doing this.” But, I am really listening to the community about what they want, what they love, what they want to do.

For example, our jazz band was small when I first got here. Rehearsals were during the school day, and a lot of students couldn’t fit it into their schedules. So we moved it out to two nights a week. All of a sudden, students that couldn’t do it before were auditioning for the group. Then we had conflicts with sports and tutoring and all that kind of stuff so we asked if we could do it in the morning. “Wait, back up. We have school at 7:25 in the morning, you’re telling me you want to come to school at 6:30 AM and play jazz before the school day?” But they were all pretty much in agreement that that’s the only time that they were all free. So I think now we’re four years and running with a morning jazz group that meets every day at 6:30 AM. As a result of that, we now have an award-winning jazz band that goes to the Berkeley Jazz Festival in Boston and is always in the top five.

If you were to give a new music teacher one piece of advice on how to be successful, what would it be?

The biggest tip I can give to any new music educator is work really hard. Work really, really hard, and know that it’s gonna be hard. I started at Centennial in my second year of teaching, and jumping into a big high school job in your second year is tough. There were tears, there were nights I was sitting at that desk till 8:00 PM trying to figure out what I was gonna do, how I was gonna do it. And you know, there were times that I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” You just have to keep working and powering through. And be honest with yourself. If you have a method, if you have an approach, you always have to ask yourself, “Is it working?” You may like that approach or exercise that you do every day, but are the kids loving it? It may be the right thing to do pedagogically, but if they’re not engaged in it, you’ve got to find a way to get them hooked and then sneak that other stuff in there.

What does 2019 look like for you and the kids here at Centennial?

For 2019, much like I say about being better than yesterday, I just want us to be better than last year. We’ve had a lot of big successes. We went to Midwest Clinic was December for a lot of groups, which I think is kind of the pinnacle, but we’re all on the same page in the band program that that’s not our destination. We’re not coming back now from a high moment, we’re going to keep going. We need to hold ourselves to higher standards musically, personally, and we’ll see what it brings us.

Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you think you would like to share about yourself or music in general?

A big thing is my philosophy for teaching. My philosophy in working with students is that they always have to just be getting better, and that doesn’t mean perfect. There are times that I stand in front of my groups and say, “This has got to be perfect,” but even more, I’m telling them, “It’s never going to be perfect, so you just gotta keep trying to make it better.” I think all students have a tough moment that they label as failure and then decide they can’t do it or they’re not capable. My goal is to make sure that they know that they’re capable of anything. There’s a certain amount of hard work between them not being able to do it and then being able to do it. So celebrating those little improvements all the time through hope is what makes us work. If we can believe there’s better in us, then we’ll work harder.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank?

I’m super honored to be the 2018 recipient of the Music & Arts Music Educator of the Year award. A huge thank you to everyone at Music & Arts and Christine Martin, our educational representative. Also, I’m so unbelievably thankful for all the people around me in my life that helped bring this recognition to our program. It’s not just for me, it’s for our program. First and foremost the students. They’re a joy to work with, I love it, I love them. The parents are unbelievably supportive. Our administration, all the staff members in the building. It takes a community to build a music program, and I’m really thankful that I have an awesome community to build one with.

Curious about past winners? Check out our Q&A with last year’s winner here. 

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