For those walking up toward the Benton County Historical Museum early last week for the Philomath Tree-Lighting Ceremony, the sounds of holiday music filled the air.
In addition to a deejay playing music through a sound system, the annual event this year featured a more personal, local touch. Philomath Elementary's Falcon Singers were spreading cheer with a selection of holiday songs.
Proud parents crowded around with cellphones and cameras along with others on hand to soak in the festive atmosphere.
Although such performances had occurred at the event in the past, it's been a few years. First-year elementary school music instructor Don Meeker was excited to get the students out in front of the community to perform.
"I believe in performances," Meeker said. "When you have a choir, if you're not performing somewhere, there's no use having it."
The Falcon Singers, which features 55 fourth- and fifth-graders, performed this past Wednesday for the Philomath Lions Club. The next day, they went to the Stoneybrook Lodge retirement community in Corvallis.
And coming up this week, the youngsters will sing Thursday at both The Regent retirement community in Corvallis and the Heritage Mall in Albany.
Meeker, 61, was born and raised in Medford with his first teaching assignment coming in 1983 in the South Umpqua School District. He moved on to a position with the Phoenix-Talent School District before teaching for 26 years at a private school in Medford.
Before coming to Philomath, Meeker taught another two years in the South Umpqua district.
"We moved up here because we have grandchildren up here," Meeker said. "We wanted to be closer to the two grandkids we have."
Meeker jumped into action to get the Falcon Singers some gigs after beginning his new job in Philomath.
"I kept asking what they'd done and I couldn't find any information on it, about what they had been doing the last couple of years," he said. "So I went, 'you know what, I'll do what I was doing with the choirs I had when I was in Medford.'"
Meeker got on the phone and started making calls to places that are usually very receptive to youth performances, such as retirement homes. He also tried to compile a list of possibilities with various activities that go on around town.
"I called the chamber and to see what they do in town because I like to have the kids support their community, too," said Meeker, communication that led to the Falcon Singers performing at the Christmas tree lighting. "Everybody was excited that we were going to come sing."
Meeker accompanies the group playing his guitar.
"A lot of people play piano, but it's hard to drag a piano around with you," Meeker said. "I really do like the guitar because it's so portable."
Meeker makes sure he doesn't become the focal point of a performance.
"For me, people are coming to hear the kids singing and not there to hear me talk," Meeker said. "I'm just accompanying them and helping with parts if they need it."
When asked what he likes about teaching children at this level in their education, Meeker chuckled for a few seconds and said, "My wife and I have always said we don't like babies and we like it when kids are starting to be able to do things on their own."
The fourth- and fifth-graders fit that description.
"This is such a great age because they're individual personalities are really starting to come out and they're so willing to work hard for something they really like doing," Meeker said.
The biggest challenge comes with the students' comfort level on stage to get them to focus on what they're doing.
"They're not professional, getting them to understand how to perform in front of other people and what you do to do that," he said. "From the moment that you step onto the stage and until you walk off the stage, you are performing. It doesn't matter if you're singing or not. You are performing and that's a hard thing for them to understand, that yes, they (the audience) are watching."
Meeker said the older the students get, the more proficient they become.
"Some people ask me, 'don't you feel like that just working with elementary kids, you can't do as much as the high school kids are as adults?' It doesn't matter ... it's the enthusiasm they have for what they're doing is what the big plus is," Meeker said. "It's not the fact that they can't sing a six-part opera and stuff. If they're singing a two-part and say, 'that's so cool' — that's what I like.
"I take them where they are and have them enjoy what they're doing so they can become more proficient and do that," he added.
After the holidays, the Falcon Singers will prepare for a district choral festival, but there will also be more public performances.
"I plan on taking them different places and finding out what's around," Meeker said. "I told the people at Stoneybrook, we'll come back there in the springtime if they'd like to have us again."
Meeker just wants to get the children out in the community.
"If things go well, I just might see if I can arrange a concert just for them to have at school here, too," Meeker added.
Meeker believes in the educational benefits of music and the impact it can provide on a person's life.
"There have been scientific studies ... that with kids who do music, their grades are better, they generally do better in school, they get into less trouble, they're busier, they have something to always work for," Meeker said.
Although all that sounds great, Meeker thinks one of the primary benefits revolves around self-confidence.
"For me with these guys performing, getting them in front of people, it prepares them to be able to be in front of people in their lives," Meeker said. "Not to be so self-conscious about it's just me and my voice. When you ask for a raise with your boss, it's just you and your voice. ... Anytime you can get them in front of people, it prepares them for life."