The Ohio University chapter of the Music Teachers National Association was honored for their collaboration with Athens Poet Laureate Wendy McVicker

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The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is a national non-profit organization dedicated not only to supporting and enriching budding music-teaching professionals, but also to the communities those professionals serve.

In fact, The Ohio University Collegiate Chapter of the MTNA places a special emphasis on community engagement. Because of this focus, the chapter’s current Chair, Andrea Tinajero, said the group regularly creates a project that focuses on Athens.

“The association works on a project that can either be community based, like providing service to the community, or research-based. So last year we decided, since everything was remote or virtual and nothing could be in person, to commission a piece that would represent the tone of Athens — from the hills to all the other little things that make Athens Athens,” said Tinajero.

The chapter commissioned Athens County native and recently graduated Ohio University student Matt Dowler to spearhead the project. Dowler said he was given great creative freedom with the undertaking.

“They said they wanted something that would really kind of reflect the area, something that would kind of just showcase the community and what makes Athens Athens,” said Dowler. “And they didn’t really know totally how to go about it. All they knew was wanted to work with text if they could.

In their search for an original text that could speak genuinely to the unique energy of our region, the chapter reached out to Wendy McVicker, Athens Poet Laureate.

“So much of my poetry is just inspired by the landscape and the life of Athens,” said McVicker. “I think of it as growing out of the earth, you know, the way our trees do here.”

McVicker shared three of her poems inspired by various aspects of Athens for consideration. In the end, Dowler selected “What Matters,” a work featured in a collection of McVicker’s work entitled “Zero, a Door” (published earlier this year by Orchard Street Press).

“What Matters” asks the reader (or listener) to consider the following question: “What does it matter that we are forgotten?” To Dowler, this sentiment was resonant.

“One of the lines in the poem is ‘what does it matter that we are forgotten?’ That really spoke to me because a huge part of living in Appalachia in general and in this area specifically is that you have to realize that this place is not the forefront of anyone’s attention. A lot of times we’re kind of looked over for seemingly everything. We kind of have to make do without, because whether it’s governmental things or, you know, cultural things, there’s just not a lot that happens here because we’re kind of just forgotten,” said Dowler.

Early in 2021, Dowler and McVicker met to record the poet reading her work for the project. Dowler then crafted an original score to compliment McVicker’s reading of “What Matters.” Soon after, Dowler began working with conductor Laura Silva and musicians Mercy Olson, Abigail Olson, Gloria Lemus, Emma Theberge, Xuan He, and Tinajero to perfect the piece and prepare to record a rendition of it that would be unified with McVicker’s readings.

The chapter’s desire to reflect Athens in a meaningful way through the project was more than successful. According to Tinajero the Ohio University chapter has been named the MTNA collegiate chapter of the year.

McVicker said she is honored by the chapter’s use of her work, and their keen interpretation of the sentiment at its heart.

Musicians performing Matt Dowler’s original composition to accompany Wendy McVicker’s reading of “What Matters”.

“It is moving to me, Matt, to hear you connect this question of ‘what does it matter that we are forgotten’ to living where we do in this little, quiet, often overlooked corner of the state and of the country,” said McVicker. “And at the same time, there’s that large sense that all of us here will probably be forgotten. Most beings pass over through the Earth and are forgotten, but so what? We are here, we are living, we are experiencing the beauty of world — and that endures. The seasons roll around again, whether or not we’re here, the moon keeps pulling at the ocean, whether or not we’re here — and there’s something, to me, very reassuring about that. And our job is to do what it is that we do on the planet and be grateful for it. To appreciate it, and be grateful.”