Matthew Hunter: Our Ideal Choir Director


Choir director Matthew Hunter began working at Niles West in 2016.

By Sarah Cohen, Staff Writer

Fashionable, musically passionate, a leader, and a powerful man. Those are some examples of the characteristics that go into our ideal choir director here at Niles West: Matthew Hunter.

For almost two years now, Hunter has been changing the game for the music department. He relies on the participation of the students and their dedication to guide them through each and every performance.

“The success of the choral department is solely built on the shoulders of my students and is based on the student involvement in terms of leading and ownership. I believe that it needs to feel like it belongs to the students and not me, otherwise, it won’t be a success,” Hunter said. “I am less of a teacher, but more of a facilitator in this environment; I’m here to walk students through things as they come to their own realization of what is their best representation of what they want to put on stage.”

Hunter cherishes his students and focuses on the relationships he makes in order to ensure and radiate comfort and positivity throughout the class.

“The best part about my job is the relationships that are built with students. Singing is such a vulnerable activity that you can’t help but get closer to the people that are involved. When having a relationship together, taking risks, like singing a bad note, seems less stressful but rather safer and supported. The best sounds in our class come from relationships,” Hunter said.

Music has the ability to say what you want to say when you are unable to speak it for yourself. Hunter believes this offers a pleasant method through which the students can convey their feelings. 

“I love the quote by Nina Simone- ‘an artist should reflect the times.’ I believe that not only do we sing music that we enjoy and love, but we sing music that has a way of articulating our feelings about the current state of our lives that words alone can’t,” Hunter said. “A song can deliver and portray a mood that we can’t just by speaking and saying. Music is a wonderful avenue for students to express themselves and allows them to clearly articulate how they feel about something and helps with thoughts and such in a musical way. 

Starting this year, administrative assistant for physical welfare and private music instructor Carl Alexander began assisting Hunter some days throughout the week in each of his classes. He helped students understand their music in each section while learning from Hunter along the way.

“He’s incredibly engaging and fun to work with as a teacher and as someone who is learning. If I were a student, I’d say that I learn a lot about style and having direction in what I’m doing, singing, and truly having something to say,” Alexander said. “I love that he gives students the opportunity to have a voice and express their feelings and what they want to achieve as musicians. In a lot of parts of this country, students are given instruction in what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it, whereas here, he gives the students more freedom and a platform.” 

Hunter’s love for teaching started in high school when he directed two choirs. Both of them were youth choirs, one being a community choir where he taught all of the songs. Thankfully, his high school teacher helped him find his passion for music and teaching that had been there the whole time; he just hadn’t realized it could have been a career path for him.

Hunter has the ability to utilize his musical talent to his advantage by allowing him to get away from negativity and hardships that he encounters in day-to-day life.

“Music is therapeutic; it’s a way that I can make the world a better place. It helps me deal with emotional distress and personal difficulties, and I can get on a stage and take someone from a dark place to a place surrounded by light through music and singing-I have the ability and gift to do that. The music I sing can take you on a journey to a different place where you’re no longer thinking of the dark, hard times, but rather of hope and healing,” Hunter said.

With this job comes taking into consideration all of the students, families, and communities. It often places them before him, making sure that they are taken care of.

“Being a teacher, my position is not the focal point. Everything I do is for the interest or consideration of the students, teachers, and community in which I teach. A lot of what I do with the job doesn’t consider my feelings first, it considers the students, family, and community,” Hunter said. “Sometimes there is a struggle with finding a balance between taking care of ourselves and students, and there are times you sacrifice your happiness and free time for the sake of students and the community for which I teach. It’s a great blessing and opportunity, but also a challenge.”

As a teacher, Hunter believes strongly in setting goals for himself to become a better teacher, but also for his students to become the best musicians they can be.

“Some of the goals I have for the students are to become more independent as musicians. I feel that they are more dependent on me, which is age appropriate, and I’m here because they need me to teach them things, and I want to give them the tools necessary to become independent musicians,” Hunter said. “I’m hoping that when I am not around they are able to still do these things without having any dependence on me. I feel that I am here more for guidance and assisting them when needed.”

Senior and choir president Riley Pranian appreciates the spirit and vigor Hunter incorporates into the class.

“Mr. Hunter has brought laughter and a new type of energy into the choir department. There are days in choir class where we’ll just laugh and talk for half the period. Sometimes, I forget he’s my teacher because he’s so easy to get along with, I see him as a friend. He is sassy, passionate, and one of the most talented people I have ever had the privilege to meet,” Pranian said.

One of the things that stand out about Hunter is that he is extremely passionate about who he is as a person and his community as a whole. He cares and focuses on the empowerment of his people, and makes sure to incorporate it into his teachings.

“As a black music teacher, I understand that there will be a lot of people who don’t look like me, and it’s seen as a representation of the black race. I understand I have the unfortunate responsibility of people who don’t look like me and what is acceptable for people who don’t understand race equality,” Hunter said. “It’s a hard job to have because this is an additional responsibility in trying to be a successful music teacher. Being black, there’s not a lot of us in this field meaning that sometimes it’s tough, it’s lonely, and people don’t always understand life as a black teacher. For me, I have to be twice as strong and twice as good to achieve respect and receive opportunities; it’s difficult, but it’s my life.” 

Regardless, you can always find him standing out amongst the crowd due to his incredible fashion sense. Although he enjoys hoodies and sweatpants here and there like the rest of us, he believes strongly in representation.

“It’s simple. I dress how I want to be addressed,” Hunter said. “Depending on your outfit, people will speak to you differently and treat you differently. I dress for the occasion on how I want people to see me and talk to me.”

Like many other teachers, Hunter struggles to try to find the balance between his job and trying to schedule in time for his personal life and his other passions. While maintaining his busy life as a teacher, he has also taken up a position as an adjunct professor at College of Lake County in Grayslake, teaching a night class every Monday. At the same time, he is currently getting his masters degree at the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Theological Studies.

In the near future, Hunter hopes to eventually teach at the collegiate level and then one day teach about music and worship. He wants to teach about how music influences and impacts those Christian worship services. Until then, Niles West is lucky enough to have him as our choir director. 

Christina Lappas contributed to this article.