Choir director earns Lifetime Achievement Award

he honor rests upon a high, corner shelf of his First United Methodist Church office, somewhat hidden behind Minions cardboard characters hanging from the ceiling, courtesy of a coworkers’ lighthearted prank.

A friend mentioned that Columbus native J. Kevin Butler need not grandly showcase his musical ability when he knows quite well who he is. So the Arizona-based Fame Show Choir National Championship Series’ Aspire Lifetime Achievement Award that he recently received for his work with high school show choirs and as a show-choir competition judge will have to remain … a little less showy.

That’s because the 59-year-old Butler never puts himself front and center in his music.

For example, as he spoke of a recent Sunday morning service that overflowed with 40 minutes of songs, from old-time gospel to spirituals, he gushed about a brass ensemble, a bell choir, an organist and more.

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Not a word about his behind-the-scenes work as director of music to help it all come together.

“The nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten came from a teacher who came up to me once and said, ‘I bet you could turn garbage into music.’”

Call it making trash a smash.

When Butler received his recent distinction at the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, Illinois, he passed the glory to others.

He thanked all the students he has nurtured nationwide as he worked as a guest choral conductor, polishing their skills during weekend practices. And he has done so while adjusting to changing times — and adjusting to teens battling a bit more insecurity than years before.

“You certainly still can have high standards,” Butler said. “But I would say that you probably have to be more positive with them — and you have to be constantly reinforcing and constantly praising.

“The other thing is that you have to be more sensitive to different learning styles.”

Part of Butler’s 20-plus years of full-time work in school music includes a stint from 1988 to 1991 as choral director at Columbus East High School.

Brendan Jennings, choral director in Burbank, California, at John Burroughs High School, where his students have won three national choral titles in several years, considers Butler one of the country’s top-notch directors to fine-tune a group. Jennings has flown in Butler several times for a weekend of rehearsals and tweaks with students just before big competitions.

“His greatest strength is connecting quickly and deeply with students on a very human level,” Jennings said. “That’s often tough to get or to garner. But he finds ways to make everything with students extra personal with his vulnerability.”

Plus, Jennings praised Butler’s enthusiasm being “a good match for students’ energy and exuberance.”

Scott Dove, an IU Singing Hoosiers pal of Butler’s and the person who nominated Butler for the honor, zeroed in on his friend’s expertise. Dove once worked extensively in musical theater production in Los Angeles.

“I simply have not met anyone better at teaching people to sing, and sing well,” said Dove, speaking from his office in Denver, Colorado. “He has a wonderful ability to communicate what he wants, both from a physical standpoint as well as helping students to understand the text.”

Butler talked about music and students on a recent morning as if he only had just begun his career. It seems fitting that his honor includes the word “aspire” on the base. After all, he still seems to aspire to inspire.

“Once you excite kids to how much they can achieve, it’s quite amazing,” he said.

He loves variety as much as the music itself. He has trained choirs to sing everything from Cole Porter to Prince and from Broadway to modern country.

But he would have an easier time accepting a vocalist’s sour note than attending performances for relaxation.

“It’s hard for me to go to a concert and just have a good time,” Butler said. “Because I’m always analyzing.”

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Age: 59.

Position: Director of music at First United Methodist Church in Columbus. Served as choral director at Columbus East High School from 1988 to 1991 as part of a full-time high school career spanning more than 20 years.

Hometown: Columbus.

High school education: Graduation from Columbus North High School, 1975.

College education: Bachelor’s degree in music education, Indiana University.

Post-graduate studies: Opera stage direction, theater and drama, Indiana University. Choral methods, Ball State University; secondary education – IUPUI; show choir, Heidelberg College and Millikin University.

Hobbies: Reading, theater (including catching Broadway shows when he can) and following Indiana University basketball.

Favorite Scripture: Psalm 100, about making a joyful noise to the Lord.