Kristy Cawthon and the Pride of Panola

Written by Kay Hubbard.

Children's Honor Choir: A Musical 'Match Made in Heaven'

People are generally amazed at the number of incredibly talented and trained musicians our small rural area is fortunate to have in its midst. Included in this group is local vocal and instrumental musician Kristy Cawthon. Kristy spent the first part of her childhood in Bowling Green, Kentucky and her junior and senior high years in Florence, Alabama.

She was active in both choir and band through high school, serving as drum major in band. After high school she attended Florida College in Tampa for two years, where she began as a clarinet major and was part of the chorus, chamber choir, band wind ensemble, and musical theater productions. She was also chosen as a student conductor, and conducting for both vocal and instrumental groups became her first love.

Her junior year, she transferred to the University of South Florida, where she finished her music education degree. She was chosen to compete in the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) national choral conducting competition for undergraduates. She was one of eight finalists selected to compete at the ACDA national conference, which was held around Valentine's Day in New York City. “I had never been to New York,” she says, “and it was the most exciting thing I'd ever done. Not only was it a romantic Valentine's, but because we were there with ACDA, we were able to get into a lot of amazing places, like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and hear a lot of great choral works. We didn't get to see any Broadway shows, which I would have loved, but it was still a fabulous trip. I was selected first runner up in the competition and felt okay with that because the winner had been working with the conductor of the Boston Pops for a long time.”

Kristy met her husband Michael while she was a student at Florida College. “Both of our fathers were Church of Christ ministers. His father had preached mainly in Arkansas and Tennessee, and his parents had only been in Florida about a year when they found out he had a very rare form of cancer,” Kristy says. “Michael grew up in Fayetteville and had just graduated with a marketing degree from the University of Arkansas when his dad was diagnosed. He moved to Florida to be with him and his mom, and to help take care of his 14-year-old brother. His dad passed away in the spring of 1999, and I came to school in the fall, so I never knew him. Michael began working in the Development Department (fundraising) of the school, which is a small Christian college where our parents also all attended.”

Michael also worked in a summer camp program, where he did recruiting for the college. He was a group leader in “Camp Friends,” an organization of recruitment students who were selected through an application and audition process. Kristy was selected, and they became friends when he was her group leader.“We feel like we have come full circle now,” she says, “because we just got hired to direct one of the camps in Arkansas for a week this summer. We will be responsible for everything for the week—hiring, budget, activities, everything! But Michael loves young people and is really gifted in building relationships with them, so I know we will be fine.”

Kristy finished her classes and internship, in which she was required to work with band, choir, and orchestra, and with both elementary and secondary students. She graduated in 2003 and began teaching a split assignment at two elementary schools between Orlando and Tampa., two days at one school and three days at another. The next year she was able to go full time at just one of the schools. “I believed strongly that every child should be in a show every year, so I did six shows every year in order to make sure every child was in one. We had great productions with costumes, choreography, great music, the works; it was a really big deal. We had a very small budget, so parents and everyone else pitched in and helped, sewing costumes and doing anything else we needed.” During this time she also went back and started some Master’s level work, completing a special certification in early childhood music.

Michael had no plans to go into a preaching ministry at that time and just worked at various jobs in businesses in the area. As they began having children, Kristy did not go back into full-time teaching. She taught choir in a home school coop group and worked with the Florida College Wind Ensemble as a player, instructor, and guest conductor. The economy was taking a severe downward spiral, and many of the businesses Michael was working for were experiencing very hard times, many having to close. It was during this time that he started feeling a nudge toward a preaching ministry. He called a much older minister friend in Houston whose church, Southside Church of Christ, provided a preacher training program, and the timing was perfect; the church was looking for someone to train. Michael and Kristy and their children moved to Houston and stayed there for three years for Michael to complete his training. They found out through the church grapevine that Northside Church of Christ in Carthage needed a preacher, and he was ready for a church, so it was a good fit. The family has been here four and a half years. Daughter Abi Kate is now 11 and a sixth grader; son Davy is 9 and a fourth grader; daughter Ellie is 7 and a second grader; and son Drew is 6 and in kindergarten. They attend school in Gary. Kristy has not taught full time since being in Carthage; she substitutes regularly and works at the church teaching Bible lessons to children; she recently wrote a musical memory work curriculum for Bible verse memorization.

Kristy is a member of the Carthage Music Club and was recently asked to be on the group's program committee, which is responsible for coming up with ideas for the club's meetings and programs. The committee was discussing a program on folk music for February. Kristy asked if maybe the club could sponsor a children's honor choir made up of fourth through sixth grade students who would work on a program of folk music to present and use the event as an opportunity to promote the importance of music education in the lives of our young people. “Music and all the creative arts are so important for children,” she says. “It does so much for the brain and for the emotional development of children to have a way to express themselves and to have a niche. Not every child is strong academically. Not every child is an athlete. Ones who can be successful in music or art should have a place to shine, too. It makes me very sad that as a culture we have become so focused on testing that many of our elementary music programs are dying. We seem generally to be losing awareness of the importance of music education in the lives of our children.”

 The fourth through sixth grade students at each school in the county were invited to participate in the Pride of Panola Honor Choir and perform February 6 at the Music Club's program of folk music. Kristy began in September having rehearsals once a week, on Mondays with about 30 students from Gary, and also rehearsals on Wednesdays with eight or nine Northside Christian students and with 10 to 12 home schooled children at First Baptist Church on Fridays through the Home School Association. A few additional children from the community met at Kristy's home on Tuesdays after school. These rehearsals ran from September until the week before Thanksgiving. Kristy is very impressed with how hard the children have worked and how well they are doing. She reports, “Sandra Bauer, head of choral music at Panola College, has also loaned some of her college choir students to help the kids learn their parts, which the kids love! Most have never been part of a choir before and learned different parts to sing, and they are very excited and proud of what they have accomplished. Because there is a lot of music to learn and very few, very short rehearsals, Music Club members Judy Galetar, David Yarborough, and I got together and recorded cds with each child’s part for them to practice with at home. Indeed, there are many people and organizations—Music Club, Delta Kappa Gamma, Carthage Book Club, Panola County Retired School Employees Association, and Project String Power—who have gone out of their way to provide this musical opportunity for our young people.”

 She adds, “These children have worked so hard and done so well! The Gary group even prepared additional music and choreography for three extra performances—one for the School Board, one for Veterans Day, and one for the Festival of Lights. I am so proud of what they have all accomplished. They understood that they had a program to prepare for and music to learn, but also the importance of teamwork, discipline, and working together for a goal. I told them from the beginning that THEY would choose what kind of choir they would have, whether their performances would be clean or sloppy, and that THEY would be in control of their group. I am so happy to report that they have chosen well! I hope that this program becomes an annual event because of all the good things preparation for it has afforded these amazing children!”

 The public is invited to the Carthage Music Club Folk Music Program, featuring the Pride of Panola Children's Honor Choir, February 6 at 7 p.m. at Q. M. Martin Auditorium on the Panola College campus.