Wantagh Middle School chorus teacher Matthew Carlin, of West Islip, sat at a piano and wrestled with a Lugandan-English song — “Seed to Sow” by Michael W. Smith — that his students were tired of. Then, recalling when he taught Kenyan schoolchildren as a University of Rochester YellowJacket, Carlin brought his students off the risers, where they gathered around the piano.
He asked the students to give him as much energy as possible, and they belted out the tune while moving to the music.
“It was very similar to what I was doing in Kenya,” Carlin said, “and they all loved it.”
At age 25, with musical experience ranging from the international to the nationally televised, Carlin lives the life of a school music teacher, a freelance Hollywood music producer and a rock band member all at once.
He started singing and playing instruments at a young age, and was accepted by the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in 2010. He joined the YellowJackets, an a cappella group, as a freshman, and the following summer he traveled with the group to Maseno, Kenya, to teach students at the Mbaka Oromo Primary School.
The trip “taught me that music is a universal language,” he said, “and because of that, it inspired me more to teach in any country, any town, any level, any age.”
After the trip, the YellowJackets released a charity album titled “United We Sing,” which featured vocals by the Mbaka Oromo students. The album covered a wide range of music, from the traditional Kenyan tune “Jambo” to the 1985 USA for Africa hit single “We Are the World.”
When the YellowJackets returned from Kenya, they headed to Los Angeles to appear in the third season of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” an a cappella singing competition that offered a top prize of $200,000 and a Sony Music recording contract.
Performing songs such as the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” the YellowJackets placed seventh out of 16 acts, and Carlin remembered that one group stood out from the rest with their extraordinary talent and performances. “We knew who was going to win,” he laughed, “and they were unbeatable.”
That group was Pentatonix, which not only won that season of “Sing-Off” but eventually earned three Grammys.
The YellowJackets’ loss nonetheless turned into a successful experience for Carlin, who networked with Hollywood music producers and explored freelance opportunities. Recently he arranged music for contestants on “The Four,” a new show on Fox, with two of his former fellow YellowJackets.
After graduating Eastman in 2014 with a degree in trombone performance and musical education and a minor in vocal performance, Carlin found work at West Islip’s Our Lady of Lourdes School.
He once applied to be a band director in the Wantagh School District, and although he did not get that job, he accepted a position teaching chorus for third- through eighth-graders at Forest Lake Elementary, Mandalay Elementary and Wantagh Middle School in 2016. He also teaches keyboarding, a music studio class and band lessons.
“From the day I interviewed Mr. Carlin,” said Wantagh Middle School Principal Dawn Matrochano, “I knew he would bring a current and different perspective to the WMS music program that would attract the students’ attention, and he has not disappointed.”
Carlin said that he and a few students approached Matrochano three months ago about starting an a cappella group, and she was quick to approve the idea. “We still don’t have a name,” Carlin said, “I’m trying to figure out something punny.”
In his classes, he helps strengthen students’ “ear” — their feel for music — and mixes teaching them proper pitch, rhythm and technique with working on modern pop hits. This teaching method, Matrochano said, helps get the students interested in what he is teaching.
“He is very relatable to the students,” she said, “and they can see firsthand the need to learn the basics to lead to a potential career in music both in and/or out of the classroom.”
When he isn’t teaching or producing, Carlin performs as a keyboardist, trombonist and backup vocalist with his friends in Sir Cadian Rhythm, a Long Island-based modern rock band.
One of the band’s notable gigs was opening for Andy Grammer at Huntington’s Paramount Theater in 2017, and Carlin remembered the sold-out crowd of about 2,500 being receptive to Sir Cadian Rhythm’s music.
“That was refreshing to see,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow! People still do love original music, and will listen to it and be open-minded.’”
As he teaches, prepares for more performances, continues to do freelance work — and pursues a master’s degree at Queens College – Carlin says he balances it all with one simple thing: “Naps.”
He feels blessed with the life he has, finding happiness despite sometimes being told to stick to one job, and has no plans to leave the district he calls his home. “I absolutely love Wantagh,” Carlin said. “I loved Wantagh when I came in. And if I feel that I have to leave, I will love Wantagh. I don’t see myself leaving for a long time.”