VACAVILLE — After hearing then-Vaca Pena Middle School student Colby Hawkins sing in 1998, Debbie McMindes thought the eighth-grader was a natural for the Will C. Wood Sylvan Singers.
She never thought the young man she was teaching piano would end up teaching Wood’s music program and directing the Sylvan Singers.
“He brings a true love of the program. He has a musicality that will blossom here,” said McMindes, who is helping Hawkins get settled into Wood’s music program.
The 2003 Will C. Wood graduate has strong feelings about his new job. “I am still in awe and wonder that I am a part of this great organization,” he said.
Hawkins steps into the music education shoes left by longtime Sylvan Singer choir program director David Barthelmess, who founded the choir program 23 years ago and who retired in August.
Barthelmess said he could not think of a better young educator to take over the job and take Wood’s choir program to new heights.
Hawkins returns home to Wood from his previous position, as director of choirs at a high school in Holly Ridge, N.C., where he taught both chorale and theater to high school students.
McMindes provided the impetus for what would become a career calling for Hawkins. He said up to the point when McMindes recommended him to join the Sylvan Singers so long ago, he had never considered singing.
Hawkins was inspired by the Sylvan Singers he met, “because I just loved the camaraderie and the talent.”
Over the course of his four years at Wood, Hawkins expanded his performing arts experiences to include arranging music, serving in the honor choir, acting and directing the school’s musicals and gaining the lead in “Les Miserables” in his senior year.
“Mr. B. expanded my paradigm and opened the world to me,” Hawkins said. “I saw such invaluable growth and learning experiences as a Sylvan Singer.”
Hawkins graduated from Wood in 2003 and, after doing mission work for the Mormon church, attended Brigham Young University. He was accepted as a music major, but switched to accounting.
“But it was not fulfilling,” Hawkins said of accounting, so he changed to music education with a choral emphasis.
He graduated from BYU in 2011 and worked as a fine arts assistant in Alpine School District in Utah for five months before he landed his job in North Carolina. His wife Madilyn also got a job teaching at a middle school there and they bought a house.
While at the North Carolina high school, he expanded the school’s choral program from three theater classes and a choir to four choir classes with a fistful of invitations from the community for performances.
It was an 11 p.m. call from Barthelmess saying he was retiring and that Hawkins should apply for his job that changed everything.
“My wife and I discussed it and 15 days later, we were here,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins describes his present job teaching music at both Wood and at Vaca Pena Middle School as “my dream job.” He said he is not only working to give his students the best musical experience he can, but has also injected teaching character development into his curriculum.
Plunging into teaching at two schools and running the Sylvan Singers program could not be possible without the support he is getting from his wife, the students, their parents and the choral program’s boosters, he said.
“This is a very loving community,” Madilyn Hawkins said.
Hawkins’ short-term goals include re-establishing the plan to send the choirs to music festivals to perform and compete, and continuing the Sylvan Singer’s Madrigal performances.
In the long term, it is to continue to build up the choral program to give all the choirs more opportunities to perform in public, integrate more technology into the choir program, and to improve the Vaca Pena Middle School music programs so that they could better feed prepared, inspired students into the Wood programs.
“I want us to be renowned not just in Solano County, but across the country and internationally,” Hawkins said.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.