Chorus Member Profile
Harry Mathurin-Cecil: Family Man, Educator, Musician
Working hard to reach one’s goals is a way of life for Harry Mathurin-Cecil, the May Festival’s Choral Conducting Fellow, and he learned this routine from his parents.
Harry, an ardent Chiefs fan, grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of a hospital receptionist and an engineering technician. While working at the hospital, his mother went back to school to earn her nursing degree and never skipped a beat raising her three sons. Instead, she set an example for them, juggling responsibilities while keeping academic goals on track, and finishing her degree at the same time that her boys earned their high school diplomas. Harry was always in awe of her determination and was sure to keep the same standard for himself. Meanwhile, his father took on the role of maintaining stability for the family, working as much as it took to keep everyone’s dreams afloat, a roof over their heads, and food on the table. Supporting their sons’ academic studies was always a priority for Mr. and Mrs. Cecil, and they never shied away from pushing the boys if they appeared to be getting lazy.
Harry and his brothers were given three choices upon graduating high school – either go to college, join the military, or get a job. Harry, always motivated by academic success, chose the college route. While becoming the next Puff Daddy or Quincy Jones was truly his dream, he accepted that teaching might be a more reasonable career goal – either math or music. As he progressed in his studies at Truman State, Harry decided to concentrate on music, a natural progression from his interests and activities throughout his childhood.
Growing up in the Black church gave Harry a particular advantage over his music education peers, through what he refers to as a “double education” in music. As a little boy, he learned music for church by rote, repeating after directors, feeling the beat, listening for other voices, and blending his sound for the best results. At church, participation and inclusion was top of mind, regardless of any formal training in music. While his college peers largely focused on the academic side of music education – reading music, learning theory, and using these to perfect their performance technique – Harry had the added benefit of a well-tuned ear to complement his more traditional music studies.
After receiving his degree in vocal music from Truman State, Harry went directly into graduate school to earn his master’s degree in choral conducting. With the encouragement and support of Dr. R. Paul Crabb, who had recently moved from Truman State to the University of Missouri (a.k.a. Mizzou), Harry selected Mizzou for his graduate studies and finished his master’s degree in 2007. Before long, he began his teaching career, starting at Jennings Senior High School on the north side of St. Louis.
For six years, Harry made himself at home at Jennings, an urban district with a predominantly Black population where his dual education in music came in quite handy. His students were often new to the academic study of music when they reached his classroom, though many had been singing since they were little at their churches. Harry was particularly well suited to help his students make connections between what they knew and what there was to learn in music, though the lack of a feeder program or advanced courses meant he generally only had his students for a semester before they moved on from his classroom.
To fill his personal chorus cup while teaching at Jennings, Harry auditioned joined the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s IN UNISON Chorus, a volunteer chorus focused on the interpretation, performance, and preservation of the music of African and African-American traditions. Over the years, he rose through the ranks, and eventually Artistic Director Kevin McBeth appointed him as one of IN UNISON’s Assistant Conductors, alongside Beth Enloe Fritz, an experience that set him up perfectly for his future fellowship with the May Festival.
Looking for more classical music experience to prepare him for his next advanced degree, Harry left Jennings and began teaching south of St. Louis at Mineral Area College (MAC), about an hour from his home. There, a more formal choral music education model was in place, including a bi-annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. Culturally, MAC served a similar economic demographic as Jennings, but in this rural, predominantly white area, the political landscape was a stark contrast to his last school family at Jennings.
On August 1, 2014, Michael O. D. Brown, Jr., graduated from Normandy High School, just across Interstate 70 from Jennings Senior High. Eight days later he was killed by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, before he was able to begin his technical school program nearby at Vatterott College.
Although Harry had left Jennings Senior High by this time, he returned to Ferguson after Mike Brown’s death to support his former students who had so much in common with Mike and join them in the peaceful “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” demonstrations. While civil unrest and the fear of police disrupted life around them, Mr. Mathurin-Cecil was there to see and be seen by “his kids” from Jennings.
By the time Harry was ready to apply for his doctoral degree in conducting, he and his wife Salena, a nurse practitioner, had a little girl together. The two discussed this next step in Harry’s career and where it might take their young family. The workload would prevent Harry from having a full-time job, and the family would need to move to be closer to the degree program. Salena, Harry’s number one fan and top supporter, encouraged him to proceed, on the condition that they remain in the Midwest – close to family. That’s when Harry began looking more seriously at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
After his blind audition for CCM, Harry wasn’t sure what to think. Was he good enough? Would he outshine the others in his cohort? Would he make it into the program? To his pleasant surprise, Harry was accepted at CCM, and the Mathurin-Cecil family picked up and moved to the Queen City. Now that they have settled down in Fairfield, Salena, Harry, and their daughter Sarai are getting to know the Cincinnati community better. The more Harry learns about Cincinnati’s rich choral tradition, including the May Festival’s venerable history, the more he appreciates the opportunities the CCM program provides.
Harry remains ever-grateful to Salena for her incredible support for his studies and becomes more and more appreciative of the lively musical ecosystem Cincinnati has created each day. Meanwhile, the May Festival would like to thank Harry’s parents, his church, and Salena for nurturing his talents and allowing us to have him in our choral family.