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For nearly 40 years, choir director Mark Lawley relishes in being part of something grander

Mark Lawley tutors a students at his home.
Mark Lawley tutors a students at his home.

Outside the house of Mark Lawley, the sound of a young girl singing is floating through the Nixa neighborhood.

On this day, Lawley is sitting at the piano, preparing a fourth grade student, Marilla, for a singing audition. Inside a cozy and cheerfully decorated practice room, Lawley guides Marilla through a range of vocal exercises. He taps the piano for the notes he wants to hear from her, then gives playful instructions.

“Say in your highest Minnie Mouse voice--ping, ping, ping! Really high in your head, way up there! Try it!” he instructs.

Giggling, Marilla takes a stab at it. 

"Ping, ping, ping," she chimes.

'Part of something so magnificent'

Watching Lawley’s effortlessly positive energy during the lesson, you get the sense of a seasoned teacher who’s in love with the musical process. And that’s an understatement; Lawley has directed choirs in the Ozarks for more than 37 years. For 21 of those years, he served as the choral director at Willard High School.

He founded several local choirs, including the Springfield Summer Singers and Springfield Gospel Chorus.

He also directed the Springfield Mid-America Singers and Boys Choir of Springfield.

Now retired from public school teaching, he conducts three choirs at Greenwood Laboratory School, guest conducts honor choirs across Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, and serves as a Music Adjudicator for the Missouri State High School Activities Association. He also gives private voice and piano lessons to 53 students.

Lawley says his first-grade teacher inspired him to want to become an educator, and his passion for teaching music took off in his time in band and choir at Marshfield High School.

“Every year we’d take a couple busloads to state music contests. The band would march at halftime on Friday nights and I remember getting goosebumps up the back of my neck and almost every Friday night performance my eyes would fill full of tears. It was such an emotional experience. I think what it was, not only the excellence of the other players, but just being part of something so magnificent, and just having a tiny role. That was really overwhelming to me.”

Empowering high schoolers, giving voice to 'voices who feel unheard'

Lawley is particularly interested in tackling larger problems through music. At Willard High School, Lawley asked students to choose songs they thought were important for their community to hear.

“We spent a whole day talking about what are the pressing concerns that you’re experiencing in the world? And they brought up things like human trafficking, anxiety, suicide ideation, racial inequality, sexism. They brought up all these really deep subject matters I think for high school students that they find oppressive. And then the next question was, ‘what can we do about it as artists as sort of an answer? Not that we can fix everything, but our expression can give voice to voices who are marginalized or feel unheard.”

One subject Lawley and his students address through music is suicide. A piece Lawley conducted with the Willard Chamber Choir is called A Silence Haunts Me, written by Jake Runestad about classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Lawley explains that as the world-renowned composer lost his hearing, he wrote to his brother, contemplating suicide.

“The point that was brought up time and time again is: What if Beethoven had ended his life?" Lawley says of the conversation with his students. "And the vast quantity of music that he wrote at the end of his life would have been lost forever.”

He connects the story to the lives of his students by asking those struggling with thoughts of suicide to “please stay.”

“If you are thinking about suicide, if you follow through with that, what will the world lose, because you didn’t stay with us?”

Lawley gets emotional recalling how the choir sang A Silence Haunts Me.

“You hear the agony and then it ends with these words: ‘Be well. Be well.’,” Lawley repeats the lyrics for emphasis.

'I’m in a Disney film'

Over his decades as an educator, Lawley has been able to teach generations of students music -- and is now teaching the children of some of those students.

Back in the coziness of Lawley’s piano room, Marilla’s mother Rachel Hayden sits, listening to her daughter sing happy birthday while her teacher plucks at the piano. During high school, Hayden was in Lawley’s choir in Willard, and so was her now-husband Ben. Hayden says their experience with Lawley as their director made them eager for him to train their daughter too.

“We both said, top tier would be Mr. Lawley, that’s who we want," Hayden says. "It has been such a joy and a pleasure to watch him pour into her in the same way that he did for my husband and I.”

When asked about teaching music to generations of students, Lawley can’t help but beam.

“I have described it as feeling like I’m in a Disney film. Remember those Disney after school specials?" Lawley asks. "And you know, the storyline is just heartwarming. That’s what it feels like to me. It’s like, ‘Wow, how did I get to be a part of your life and now your child’s life? It’s just extraordinarily moving and meaningful that I still get to be a part.”

Josh Conaway is a graduate of Missouri State University with a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Affairs. He works as a news reporter and announcer at KSMU. His favorite part of the job is exploring the rich diversity of the Ozarks and meeting people with interesting stories to share. He has a passion for history and running.