Ehlers to resign at end of school year

Percussion director of 15 years looks back at time with McCallum, forward to new Dripping Springs job


Scarlet Frese

Ehlers smiles at the conclusion of the December 2019 send-off concert for the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, which the percussion section would attend later that month.

Madelynn Niles, A&E editor

At the conclusion of this school year, percussion director Matt Ehlers will resign from McCallum, transferring to the band program at Dripping Springs next fall. In his announcement email sent to the band families on May 5, Ehlers expressed the difficulty of this decision and his gratitude toward the Mac community: “My 15 years at McCallum have been absolutely amazing,” he wrote. “Mac Band is truly a family and being a part of it is something I will carry with me forever.”

For Ehlers, the Dripping Springs area has always seemed a good fit for his family. Early in his relationship with Katie, his wife, the pair took a summer weekend trip to Pedernales River, just outside of Dripping Springs — a memory he explained “planted the seed” for the idea.

“We were driving home, and both of us were just like, man, this is really great out here; we could totally live out here,” he said. “As life went on, we have a daughter now, and we talked about what we want as a family, and the environment that we’re trying to foster. We are both from small towns, and there are things we love about being in a larger environment, but there are also things that we miss about being in a smaller environment.”

I told my students today that our relationship is still there. I’m still Matt Ehlers, and if they need anything from me, that has not and will not change.

— percussion director Matt Ehlers

Living just an hour away from Austin proved to be the right choice for Ehlers’ family, especially because of the opportunity to support McCallum events even after the move. 

“I told my students today that our relationship is still there,” he said. “I’m still Matt Ehlers, and if they need anything from me, that has not and will not change. I still want to be there for them and for Mac Band and support Mac Band because it has been such an important part of my life for a long time.”

When Ehlers was first offered the position at McCallum 15 years ago, the job was perfect for his skill set. He fit what he describes as a “really tiny window”: someone who could conduct a band, teach percussion and play steel drums. 

Just the next year, he took his steel drum students to perform at the highly-renowned Midwest Clinic.

“Kind of on a whim, I auditioned for it at the end of my first year teaching here,” Ehlers said. “I was young, like 24 years old, submitted the audition, got it, and so here I was. By the time it came, I was 25 and planning this trip for all these kids. I think a lot of times steel band music can be thought of as just party music, island music, and students sometimes don’t take it as a serious instrument. This was a huge step up for us. We did that, and that became the new standard.”

In the years following, Ehlers continued raising the bar for the McCallum percussion program, bringing groups to perform at PASIC (Percussive Arts Society International Convention) and returning to Midwest in 2012. 

“They allowed me to take chances,” he said. “I got to really make the program a reflection of who I am and what I enjoy.”

Soon after, Ehlers and the percussionists began working with the Austin Samba School.

Ehlers’ steel drums class was always a big hit during the Teach Your Passion professional learning day for teachers. Mac teachers would teach sessions on a subject they loved. In Ehlers’ steel drum class, the faculty attendees would learn how to play an entire song together with just one hour of instruction. Video by Dave Winter.

We would do these shows with them and I always loved it,” he said. “I came across the grant, which had to do with a community partnership, and I proposed it to their founder, and he was all about it. When I got the grant, the school district was not even equipped to deal with the currency exchange from Brazil, so he bought them, and we reimbursed him with the money. He was such a big supporter; the first year, he came in and taught. And so I was like a student, which was fun, right there next to the kids learning.”

{Mr. Ehlers] made sure everybody played a meaningful role in any given ensemble, and he always found a way to push us harder.”

— senior percussionist Julian Smith

Besides samba, Ehlers expressed that he learned countless lessons during his time at McCallum — from understanding unique student perspectives to dealing with bats in the band hall. In fact, Ehlers met his wife through the school.

“Katie taught here for five years as a history teacher and was the tennis coach,” he said. The center snare drummer, Liam, was also the best tennis player in the school, so before I even met Katie, we had exchanged numerous emails about his schedule: Liam this, Liam that.”

Another percussion and tennis student, Annie, also contributed to scheduling emails between the two. When they eventually got married, Ehlers invited the two students to their wedding.

The two athletes, however, were not the only students Ehlers had an impact on. Senior Julian Smith, a percussionist at McCallum, stated that Ehlers has been “the heart and soul of the program” during his time at Mac.

“His teaching style and compositions were so unique to him,” Smith said. “He used motifs in his beats you couldn’t find anywhere else. He made sure everybody played a meaningful role in any given ensemble, and he always found a way to push us harder.”

When Ehlers took Smith and his fellow percussionists to Chicago for the Midwest Clinic in 2019, Smith remembers being most moved by Ehlers’s pre-show speech. 

“It was really heartfelt,” he said. “He told us how he had always pictured that moment with us, and the speech ended in tears. He was talking about how whatever we choose to do, he hopes it makes us as happy as being our teacher made him.”

Marking another highlight of the Chicago trip, Smith also recalls a “cranky tuba salesman” shutting down their ensemble in the middle of a set, with Ehlers simply responding that “if it was too loud for him, he could leave.”

When the pandemic kept his percussionists apart, Ehlers devised a virtual way from them to assemble and learn from each other: a virtual solo contest facilitated via Zoom. Video by Alice Scott with Madelynn Niles.

Junior Cora Green, too, feels immense gratitude toward Ehlers and his teaching style.

“I would say that more than half of the McCallum percussion experience is having Mr. Ehlers teach you,” Green said. “He is such a devoted and caring teacher, he was so eager to teach music even to students who could care less.”

For Green, the atmosphere and community Ehlers fostered created not only a place to grow musically, but as a person, too. 

He will be greatly missed, but I know that wherever he goes, Mr. Ehlers will take his magic with him.”

— junior percussionist Cora Green

“He cares so deeply about his students and creates an environment where kids can learn music in a genuine and exciting way,” she said. “He is equally passionate about music and teaching, and that balance is what makes him such a good teacher, and his students such good people.”

As for next year, Ehlers looks forward to learning in a new environment, taking with him the lessons he has learned while at Mac. In his percussion class Monday morning, Ehlers reminded his students that although this is a change, it shouldn’t affect their passion for music.

“The main thing that I want them to know is that they love music, they love making music, they love percussion, and I was just a vehicle for that love, I just facilitated that,” he said.  “The next person here, which we have lots of great candidates for, they’re gonna facilitate that, too. The main reason that they love band and percussion is internal, it’s not me, it’s what they already have.”

And although Ehlers will greatly miss the community at McCallum, he also emphasized the importance of change.

“A saying that I like to tell all of my students is that those who change fastest will be the most successful,” he said. “In music, in business, in life. If you are open to making changes, you’re going to be more successful, and so whoever will take my spot next year will do things differently, but that doesn’t at all mean it’s going to be bad.”

His teachings proved to resonate, as Green couldn’t help but agree.

“I’m sure whoever Mr. Ehlers chooses as his replacement will be perfect for the job,” she said. “He will be greatly missed, but I know that wherever he goes, Mr. Ehlers will take his magic with him.”